Fiction by David Portz
I put a fresh sign out on the road, “CAMPSITES”, but most people don’t slow down. They don’t take the bridge over the river. They’re just driving like hell to get to some glitzy campsite they saw on the Internet that’s probably out of business or charges ten dollars.
I charge nine dollars, yes, that’s almost ten but if you turned just when you saw the sign you wouldn’t be driving like hell for the next half hour to a place that’s closed.
This place went bankrupt twice before I bought it.
I thought it was pretty and looked in good shape, so I borrowed from everybody in my family. It came with a couple of cabins, but when it was bankrupt nobody turned the water off. So in the winter all the pipes under the cabins froze and burst.
First thing after the bank said I owned it was to put up my wind chimes next to the office/laundry room. Then I found out about the water, because under the cabins it was bogs. A day later, with Charles, I dug up the leaky pipes.
Charles doesn’t get high marks with most people but he can dig.
Plus the canoes and kayaks that came with the place were mostly worn out. I had figured about two thirds of them were good but it turned out just one third of them. You see, patched boats have the right shape – they look like boats. But a lot of the patches weren’t any good. Charles had been here for the two previous bankrupt owners but I didn’t get to talk to him. He was way off at the edge of the woods. I should’ve said they should call him over. The propane delivery guys said Charles was dumber than a bucket of gravel. But he can count on his fingers.
Charles lives off somewhere in the woods. Up the hill. I pay him almost nothing, Doritos. He eats squirrels and herbs, or something. He knows the boats that float.
- - -
So. I have a campground on a bend in a river, one good sign out on the road and a lot of faded ones, boats that float you can count on your fingers, and cabins with water tastes like the glue from PVC pipes. So far, no advertising on the Internet. Open for business my first season. What I learned so far is I need a year made up entirely of holiday weekends. And more specifically: I need Tuesdays and Wednesdays where rainfall fills the river and then I need clear skies and a little breeze the rest of the week. Each and every week.
Because the thing is, do people still like to camp?
Do people still say “it’s the weekend” and throw a tent in their car, air mattresses and sleeping bags, a cooler with food in it, and a lighter, pots, pans and dishes and water or another cooler with drinks, and don’t forget the can opener, get ice at the store, of course presuming these are grown-ups who don’t have children? Because kids involve a crib and all kinds of extra food that they will actually eat, hotdogs and peanut butter, macaroni and cheese and bread, their clothes and water shoes, diapers maybe, batteries and a disc player with their favorite night-time music that helps them go to sleep, their favorite books, their bears and lambs without which they can’t suck their thumbs, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers for before they go to sleep, box-wine for after. People should consider leaving the kids with their grandparents or having no children because it would be so much simpler. I mean, if you had this kind of privacy and no kids you could swim naked or at least in your underwear, do the entire weekend with just underwear and bug spray and hammocks.
As a new business owner I’d say ”come on here and you can camp in your underwear and you won’t get arrested.” Just pay the nine dollars a night and don’t directly expose yourself to anybody – leastways not to children.
People go camping in order to be themselves. And you’re never more yourself than when you’re in your underwear.
I mean think about it - people who are dangerously eccentric tend to stay in their own homes with closed drapes. First-order eccentrics don’t go camping to get away from it all - they stay on their own property guarding their stuff. The people who camp, even though they can be real strange, are not your first-order eccentrics. And this is Arkansas. I mean, this isn’t Texas, so we’re not working with gun-packing, moving-around-the-landscape second-order eccentrics. Second-order eccentrics in Arkansas tend toward hunting bows, and hunting bows are unsuited to, say, your customary campground argument.
I charge nine dollars for a $10 campsite and I’m happy if I’m full up to the gills with second-order Arkansas eccentrics.
Plus, people usually mark the boundaries of their campsites with clothes hung up to dry. On the lines: towels, bathing suits, t-shirts, bandannas, sarongs, jeans and cutoffs which never actually fully dry, and then all the sleeping gear hung up if it rained the night before. Even a little sprinkle at night brings out all the sleeping gear.
Charles wears almost exclusively campground logo t-shirts and lost-and-found-box sarongs.
This was once a place of Native Americans and the word is, they didn’t build huge campfires, just right-sized cooking fires. They apparently weren’t too hung up about getting cold or being in the dark. The campfires we see here are these huge columns of flame that lick the tree limbs overhead. Nine-dollar-a-night campers, though a frugal lot, are extravagant fire-makers. Charles nailed up the signs I made: “Don’t cut anything down just so‘s you can burn it”. The combination of afraid-of-the-dark and not liking to get cold means they’ll pry a board off a picnic table sometimes and burn it. Plus some folks are just crazy to use a new hatchet. When I see one of their old rusted muscle cars rolling up to the office and it turns out they’ve brought their own wood – I really like it. In several places here it’s saplings cut down to nubbins.
Still, for most people there’s nothing like a fire to sit around, drinking out of bottles in red Razorback coozies. Or across the leaping flames, watching someone else in damp cutoffs. Get up to stir the fire with a stick. Sparks flying up.
One of my business-developing ideas is not checking IDs very close. On the grounds of some people not having them and if they pay in cash. As a result, with word-of-mouth, the campers here have started looking like younger people who are probably not yet in their 20s. I don’t want to say high schoolers, but … young. Sometimes some of the fun you’re hearing across the campground after dark is squeals of young girls. I mean I was a girl once -- you know that sound a girl makes when she’s standing there teasing a boy and then she tries to escape – the boy grabs her at the waist above the hips and it looks like tickling or wrestling? She’s laughing and trying to get away from him? It goes with the state of nature - I bet those same squeals have been heard on this bend of river back to the Native Americans and the cave days.
Of course I’m a grown-up twentysomething and a business owner. Charles, he’s a twentysomething also. I have a big room above the office to sleep in, like a little apartment. A weird lonely thing about owning a twice-bankrupt campground is I don’t go from one campsite to another at night seeing if everything’s okay. I give people their space and stay in the apartment. Cozy but no campfire, a little lonely.
Charles may be a little lonely too, though he’s hard to read. On the scale of light bulbs most people would give him 40 watts, or maybe sixty. His breath smells like wild onions. Thick head of dark brown hair, hair also on his neck and shoulders and on the back of each arm. You see that when he lifts things or when he helps a young woman into a boat.
Charles likes to sit at the edge of the river on a folding chair, and of course that’s his job in the mornings - to plunk people into boats and tell them to wear their life jackets. He also picks them up as the shuttle driver, he’s pretty good about that, though a bit bad on timing. I think they see not to complain about him. Charles is a person, like, if you’re looking for rocks on the bank of a river to remember the place by, Charles is a rock you might not pick up.
- - -
The way I fell in love with the place is finding an arrowhead on the bank where the river first reaches the property. I think while I’ve owned the place the river has looked happier - less like a drowning rust-brown gutter and more like a foamy root beer float that can ultimately be trusted. I liked the idea of having a business on a curve of a rootbeer river. Before I lost my sunglasses they were that root beer color - I liked looking through them. As time has passed I see I have a business about eccentric and overly young people having a rollicking time and wanting to come back. Maybe some of the inevitable pregnancies result in totally happy children and the circumstances are looked back upon as magic and beautiful. Charles. Why do I think at this moment of Charles?
* “Kah-kee-nee-hay” English language rendering of Hasinai (Caddo Native American dialect) verb meaning “to get up from a lying position”.
|The author, David Portz