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Chippertwig Campfires

               The morning lifeguard at the beach along Lake Banquist in Chippertwig Campground was the oldest lifeguard Neil had ever seen. Despite being the first person at the beach on many mornings throughout the summer, Neil never spoke to the lifeguard when he arrived, bare-chested and clad in vibrant red trunks, hobbling across the sand with the assistance of a cane and climbing the ladder up to the lifeguard chair with such unsteady effort that Neil was afraid he might topple backward and fall. Who would save the lifeguard if he fell? It would be up to Neil, he supposed.

                After the lifeguard showed up and the beach was officially open, more people would find their way there as the day warmed. Mostly kids and teenagers. Sometimes a mom would come to supervise or a dad would come to roughhouse in the water with his sons. The elderly lifeguard never said or did anything to restrict anyone’s behavior. Neil never saw him leave his chair for any reason until his shift ended at noon, at which point one of the more conventionally-aged lifeguards would take over and the swimmers and sunbathers would suddenly find themselves swimming and sunbathing on a beach exactly like the one on which they had just been swimming and sunbathing, except with enforced rules. This was usually Neil’s cue to leave in search of food. Not because he wanted to break rules, but because he was usually hungry by then. And the regular screeching of the lifeguards’ whistles was obnoxious.

                Traveling the winding gravel roadways through the campground on flip-flopped feet, Neil would follow the scents and sounds of food preparation to a site where lunch was either in progress or about to be. There, strolling by as if determined to get somewhere else but not urgently, Neil would give himself the appearance of hunger, but not in a too-obvious belly-rubbing, lip-licking way. His methods were more subtle and more effective. Upon noticing how hungry Neil appeared, the campers would offer him some of their food, he would initially decline, they would insist, and that would be his lunch. Sometimes he would have to goad lunch-havers into offering with a casual “Smells good!” but he preferred not to.

                In the afternoon, Neil would hang out at one of the two swimming pools, or perhaps shoot hoops if there was anyone at the courts with a basketball. He did not have his own basketball. Sometimes he would lean on the split-rail fence surrounding the miniature golf course and watch the reddening shoulders of campers and their guests tense in anticipation of each miss as they adjusted their grips on their rented putters and struck their golf balls with either too much force or not enough. But would the correct amount of force have been enough to compensate for the errant trajectories of their putts? Probably not. Some of the mini-golfing campers and their guests were already drunk.

Sometimes Neil would watch children swarm around Chippy, the mascot of Chippertwig Campground who should have been a chipmunk, obviously, but was instead an anthropomorphic twig. Chippy made scheduled appearances in the campground throughout the day, though Neil had seen him often enough to know that it wasn’t always the same person in the suit. He could distinguish the different Chippys by their postures, strides, which hands they waved with, and so on.

Once, a middle-aged woman had invited Neil to play horseshoes with her. He had accepted and won easily. The woman had grudgingly handed Neil ten dollars as he left, which surprised him. He hadn’t known they were playing for money. Another time, a man sitting on a picnic table and holding a guitar had waved Neil over and asked, “Can you teach me to play guitar?” He was disappointed when Neil had refused to even try. Another time, Neil had witnessed a golf cart collision that resulted in a funny confrontation wherein one driver berated the other driver while the other driver just shook his head and said, “That’s not how I see it” over and over. Sometimes Neil went back to the beach to read. He had a collection of bad books that he’d found at various locations in the campground, but he enjoyed reading them because they had belonged to real campers. Reading the books made him imagine the kind of camper who had originally selected the book, who may have even paid the full cover price for the book.

Once the sun began to set, and after acquiring another meal by appearing to be hungry in close proximity to grilling meat, Neil contented himself with wandering. He loved dusk in Chippertwig Campground. He felt more anonymous in the gathering darkness, which made him feel more like a legitimate camper, one who had paid good money for his spot and whose presence in Chippertwig Campground was therefore unimpeachable. He watched out for the careenings of the youth-driven golf carts, accepting all close calls with benevolent smiles probably unseen by the youths. He did not direct his feet. He embraced the tackiness of the nighttime decorations adorning some of the lots, the strings of colored lights, the strings of white lights, the light-up beer signs, the neon lights fashioned in flamingo shapes, palm tree shapes, rainbow shapes, indecipherable shapes, sun and moon shapes.

And then campers would begin to lean toward bed. Their fires shrank and turned deepening shades of red as the campers stared into their centers. The campers’ eyes became heavy-lidded from tiredness, alcohol, and perhaps as a natural defense against smoke. Their conversations were hushed out of respect for earlier turners-in, or else they weren’t. Sometimes they were very loud, and as Neil passed, he would hear campers in adjacent campsites complaining of their neighbors’ noisiness, their aggrieved whispers reaching him through thin tent walls and open RV windows positioned just above RV beds. Eventually, when he was sufficiently tired to return to his own sleeping bag without fear of being kept awake by self-pity and envy, Neil would head for his tent, pitched not on one of Chippertwig Campground’s many rentable lots, but rather in the woods next to Chippertwig Campground that were technically owned by Chippertwig Campground but were not, despite what Neil really wanted to believe, technically part of Chippertwig Campground.


This late summer weeknight after most schools had started again, Neil walked through Chippertwig Campground in search of camping scenes that would help to forestall the constricting feeling that the end of the camping season always brought down on him. But camping scenes of any kind were few and far between, and those that Neil could find were mostly depressing. The campers stared into their failing fires with expressions on their faces that heightened the very constricting feeling that Neil was trying to forestall. He estimated that Chippertwig was only a third full, maybe less. A blue Chippertwig Security truck trundled past, its driver offering Neil a head-nod that said, “You don’t seem like a threat,” which was the exact impression Neil always tried to cultivate in all Chippertwig authority figures. Anything to prevent a series of questions about which lot he was staying in.

With the Security truck headed in the opposite direction, Neil walked on, but his hopes were fading. One happy family talking about their campground plans for the next day would have helped, but he saw none of those. Even people who looked like quintessential noisy campers were reserved and solemn. Neil saw one shirtless man rise from his saggy camp chair, go inside his pop-up camper, and return wearing a shirt. And not only a shirt, but a jacket. Neil hurried on, trying not to think about it, trying not to think about how he might kind of like to put on a jacket too.

On one hand, walking past empty lots, dark mobile homes, dark RVs, dark campers, more empty lots, and people openly mourning the evaporation of their camping summers was having a corrosive effect on Neil’s spirit and he did not want to keep doing it. On the other hand, returning to his tent after such a dispiriting ramble would only make it worse. He’d have nothing to do but lie there and stew in it. He knew what his brain would do. It would alternate between wondering what he was going to do once Chippertwig closed down for the year and dwelling on the fact that he had spent yet another summer as something other than a Chippertwig Campground camper. He hadn’t even been a guest. He’d been a parasite, taking of Chippertwig Campground and contributing nothing but shy admiration, which he concealed so as not to draw too much attention to himself. He tried to take as little as possible, to never do anything to harm Chippertwig, to always be mindful of staying out of the real campers’ ways, but he took their food, didn’t he? He increased the size of the crowds in the campground on busy weekends by one human body, didn’t he? And he wasn’t small. He was 5’10” and over 200 pounds. He often let people in front of him to use the bathroom if there was a line, but he couldn’t let everyone in front of him, could he?

As Neil’s mood spiraled, his feet acted on their own and carried him through an especially desolate portion of the campground, one he rarely visited. The trees in this area were tall and thick-trunked. Sometimes during storms they dropped branches on the vehicles of campers and those campers tried to get Chippertwig to pay for repairs. Neil didn’t know if they succeeded or not. He didn’t know whose side he was on. He loved Chippertwig, but Chippertwig wouldn’t be Chippertwig without its loyal campers, so he loved them too. The leafy canopy over Neil’s head obstructed the moonlight and the gravel road beneath the soles of his flip-flops was now more of a dirt road with strips and pockets of gravel here and there. Some of the mobile homes in this part of the campground were not only dark now, but were always dark, even during the 4th of July weekend. And not just dark, but also run down. The river wasn’t far away, but it was too lazy to hear, even in the grim silence.

Neil heard something, though. He heard voices, two of them, male and laughing. Their laughs were not nice, exactly, but neither were they strained nor forced nor hollow, and those qualities drew Neil toward them. Were the young men – they sounded young – at a campsite? No, they were coming around the corner toward him. He heard the scuff of their feet on the road, their voices getting louder. Their silhouettes appeared then, both of them tall and lanky. He saw their heads move in such a way that it was clear they had seen him, but they did not let his presence interrupt their conversation, the specifics of which Neil could now hear, although he couldn’t really make sense of it.

“Remember the look on his face when he was bearing down on you in his van?”

“Yes, of course. Vividly.”

“In the school parking lot!”

“It was a look of glee.”

“He wanted to run you over.”

“Oh, yeah. He was thrilled when I stepped in front of his van.”

“Although it looked like he was cackling when you stepped out of the way.”

“He was definitely cackling. From his perspective, I challenged him and he called my bluff and defeated me.”

“Hey guys,” said Neil. He could just barely see their faces. They were in their early 20s, he guessed, 8 or 10 years younger than him. They gave him friendly nods and said “hey” in almost-unison. Neil stopped and pivoted to face the young men as they passed, which caused them to stop and turn to face him too, expectant. Mildly expectant. Maybe a little annoyed, but not showing it. Not showing it enough for it be visible in the dark, anyway. “How’s it going?” asked Neil, either meeting or failing to meet the young men’s expectations, but certainly not surpassing them.

“Pretty good,” said the young man wearing a baseball cap tilted back on his head to reveal a receding hairline. “Nice night.”

“Yeah,” said Neil. Why had he stopped them? What did he want from them?

The other young man, the taller of the two with broad shoulders and glasses, asked, “Are you staying here in the campground?”

“Yes,” said Neil, pleased with his ability to deliver his lie quickly and casually. Even so, he felt compelled to add a little extra to it. “Why else would I be here now?”

The young men grinned. “Well, we’re here now,” said the young man in the cap.

“Are you not staying here?” asked Neil.

“No, I live a few miles down the road from here,” said the young man. “We just like to come here to walk around at night.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” said Neil. “It’s great here, obviously. But still, just walking around in Chippertwig isn’t the same as actually staying here.”

The young men glanced at each other and smiled as if Neil weren’t standing there.

“What?” said Neil. “Wouldn’t you want to stay here sometime?”

“No,” said the taller young man. “I would not.” The other one laughed.

Neil was grateful for the darkness as he felt blood rushing into his face. “So why are you here?”

“It’s interesting,” said the young man in the cap. “We like to observe Chippertwig culture.”

“So you think you’re too good to stay here,” said Neil. “You like to come here to walk around and laugh at, uh, us. You think this whole place and all these people are just, like, classless and tacky and corny.”

“It’s just not our thing,” said the young man. “But if you enjoy it, don’t let us stop you.” He and the taller young man turned to continue walking.

But Neil wasn’t finished with them. “If you’re not paying to stay here or an invited guest of someone who is paying to stay here, then you’re not allowed in Chippertwig Campground. You can’t just come in here and do whatever you want unless you pay or you’re invited. So you have to leave. If you want to make fun of Chippertwig, then pay for a spot and stay here. Maybe then you’ll realize that-”

“No one cares if we walk around,” said the taller young man over his shoulder.

“They would if they knew you were breaking the rules,” said Neil. “Everyone would. The campers. Security.”

The young men turned toward him. They were distant enough now that their facial features were again indistinguishable. “So are you going to tell on us?” asked the young man in the cap. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“I won’t have to if you just leave,” said Neil. “Why can’t you just let us wind down our season in peace? This is a hard time for us. The campground is going to close soon and we won’t be able to come back until late next spring. And who knows what our lives will be like then? Who knows what the world will be like then? That’s weighing on all of our minds right now, and you two walking around and ironically enjoying this place that means so much to us isn’t helping. It’s making it worse.”

Both young men snorted. “You’re looking for reasons to be upset,” said the taller one. “You’re falling apart because you have to go back to living in a real house soon and you won’t be able to spend all day driving back and forth to a convenience store buying one burger condiment at a time. Don’t blame us.”

“It’s relaxing here,” said Neil. “What’s so stupid about relaxing? Everyone likes to relax.”

The young men laughed, and this time it was openly mocking.

“If Security catches you, they might ban you for life,” said Neil.

“Then how will we have a chance to ever see how right you are?” asked the young man in the cap. “We’ll go to our graves without the proper level of respect for Chippertwig Campground.”

“That’s the risk you’re taking if you don’t leave by your own choice,” said Neil. “Right now.” He knew they were mocking him, but he still felt compelled to emphasize the seriousness of his warning. It made him sad to think of anyone being banned from Chippertwig Campground for life, even a couple of jerks like these two. They were young, though, and maybe in a few years – maybe in a lot of years – they’d grow to understand the simple pleasures that only Chippertwig Campground could provide, and it would be tragic if the arrogant attitudes of their youths were to prevent them from partaking of those pleasures. But also, Chippertwig couldn’t be Chippertwig without protecting itself from those who sought to undermine it. The good of the campground as a whole could not be risked for the sake of two young men who might maybe someday possibly realize how wrong they had been to view Chippertwig with ironic detachment. If they did not heed Neil’s warning, if they did not understand the gravity of the situation, then there was nothing else he could do for them.

And as they walked away, Neil could tell that they had not heeded his warning and had no intention of heeding his warning or anything else he’d said. So he was going to have to take action. He was going to have to do something about the two young men. They could not be allowed to continue to do what they were doing unopposed. The one complication – and it was a big one – was that Neil was also not paying for a lot in Chippertwig Campground, was also not an invited guest, and had spent all summer posing as one of those two things. But he loved Chippertwig Campground, whereas the young men enjoyed it only in a condescending way. Neil’s heart was in the right place; the hearts of the two young men were not in the right place. But how could Neil draw the attention of Chippertwig Security to the cynical, joyless trespassing of the two young men without bringing scrutiny upon himself? What if – and it was too horrible to even consider – but what if he got banned for life from Chippertwig Campground before he got a chance to acquire a bunch of money somehow, purchase an RV, and pay for a lot all summer long every summer for the rest of his life? He couldn’t risk it. But he also couldn’t let the young men off the hook. He needed a buffer or a proxy or an intercessor. He needed a real Chippertwig Campground camper.


The woman was all alone in lot 428. Her pop-up camper was dark and whatever vehicle had towed it to lot 428 was nowhere to be seen. She sat in a fraying lawn chair and stared into the guts of a dying fire. There was no breeze and the smoke from the fire coiled straight up into the sky as if the moon were a magnet. A magnet for smoke. The woman wore a black tank top and a wide-brimmed sun hat with a drawstring cinched taut under her chin. Her thick legs protruded from knee-length khaki shorts and extended toward the fire where her booted feet were crossed at the ankles six inches from the edge of the fire pit.

“Hello,” said Neil from the road, not wanting to set foot on her rented lot unless invited. “Nice night, isn’t it?”

The woman looked up from the fire and directed her gaze toward Neil who, judging by the way the woman’s expression changed, rated slightly below the fire in terms of things that the woman wanted to look at. “Yeah, it’s nice,” said the woman. “You can feel fall coming, though.”

“I suppose so,” said Neil, being agreeable despite having spent the last week making a conscious effort to not feel fall coming. “But there’s a lot of summer left. Fall doesn’t technically begin until September 20th, so there’s actually quite a bit of-”

“I didn’t say it was here,” said the woman. “Did I? Did I say, ‘you can feel fall is here?’ No. I said, ‘you can feel fall coming.’ I didn’t say it was close. I didn’t say it was almost here. I said you can feel it coming.”

“That’s true,” said Neil. He needed to capitulate to this woman if he was going to convince her to contact Chippertwig Security about the two young men.

The woman turned back to the fire. She sighed and re-crossed her ankles with the other ankle on top this time.

“Did you see two young men walk by here?” asked Neil.

“Yes,” said the woman without looking at him.

“Yeah, they seemed suspicious to me too,” said Neil. “I stopped them and talked to them and it turns out they’re not even staying here. And they’re not guests. They just came here to walk around and make fun of the campground.”

“I didn’t say they seemed suspicious,” said the woman.

“OK,” said Neil. “But they are trespassing. Don’t you think someone should tell Security?”

“Go for it,” said the woman.

“Right, so we agree that someone should tell Security,” said Neil. “But the thing is that I can’t tell Security because they won’t believe me because last night I had a dream that a prowler was breaking into my RV, but it seemed so real that when I woke up, I called Security, but when they came and checked all around my RV, I realized it had been a dream, so that justifiably irritated them, so now they said the next time I have a problem, I need to have another person report it because they can’t trust me to make accurate reports. Which, again, is a totally justifiable response and nothing more than I deserve. I accept all of the blame and I’m not criticizing Chippertwig Security in any way.”

“I’m not doing it,” said the woman.

“But you agreed that someone should call Security on them,” said Neil. “That they shouldn’t be allowed to trespass.”

“No, I didn’t,” said the woman. “I said that if you care so much, then you can do something about it and leave me alone.”

“But they’re making fun of Chippertwig Campground,” said Neil. “They’re walking around in it just to laugh at it. To laugh at us. To laugh at you.”

“They’re probably just rich snobs,” said the woman. “They can only enjoy themselves if they stay someplace with, like, gold-plated TV remotes and a TV that gets one billion channels. That’s billion with a ‘b.’ They’d never settle for a million channels. Not even 100 million channels!”

“They’re not rich,” said Neil, even though he wasn’t sure. “I could tell they’re not rich.”

“Ha!” said the woman. “Then they’re probably too poor to stay here. They’re just jealous. They’ve gotta walk around and try to convince themselves they don’t want to stay here so they don’t feel bad about not being able to. Let them try. They’re just gonna go back to their beds and lie awake wishing they could count themselves among the real Chippertwig campers. They’re pathetic. Pathetic.”

Neil was already walking away before she finished talking, nearly suffocating on his shame.


                The woman at lot 202 stood staring into the fire. There were camping chairs all around the fire, but she had chosen none of them. In fact, she had pushed one of the chairs out of the way so that she could stand in its spot. She wore a hooded sweatshirt that hung down to the middle of her thighs, fully concealing the shorts Neil assumed she was wearing. The hood was pulled up over her head and stray strands of dark hair stuck out around her face. Her hands, if she had hands, were somewhere inside her sleeves. Her feet were bare and filthy to her ankles. She looked younger than Neil but older than the two disrespectful young men. There were lights on in the mobile home on lot 202 and figures stood inside with their backs to the windows. Music and a dull murmur of conversation came out of the mobile home through the screens covering the open windows. The music was old, obsolete, incapable of stirring the emotions it was originally designed to stir.

                Neil stood at the edge of the lot and asked, “Did you see two young men walk by here?”

                The woman looked up from the fire. “Yeah, I think so.”

                “They’re trespassers,” said Neil. “I can’t call Security on them, but someone should. Will you do it?” He thought it best to keep the request straightforward this time. If she needed more explanation, he’d go back to his lie. It would be more believable if he didn’t volunteer such an embarrassing explanation unprompted.

                “How are they trespassers?” asked the woman. “What do you mean?”

                “They didn’t pay to be here,” said Neil. “And they aren’t invited guests.”

                “So why would they be here?” asked the woman.

                “They’re here to make fun of the campground and all of us campers,” said Neil. “They straight up admitted that to me. No shame at all.”

                “Good,” said the woman. “Good!” Her left hand poked out of its sleeve and she used it to tuck one of her strands of hair back inside of her hood. Then the hand disappeared and the strand of hair reappeared.

                “Good?” said Neil. “What do you mean?”

                “Chippertwig deserves to be made fun of,” said the woman. “And so do we.”

                Neil was too stunned to respond.

                “Look around you,” said the woman. “Is this any way to live? Devoting entire weekends to leisure? Entire long weekends to leisure? Three-day weekends? Four-day weekends? Devoting entire vacations to leisure? One week? Two weeks? Devoting an entire season to leisure? Devoting the best season to leisure? It’s unconscionable!”

                “You don’t like it here?” asked Neil.

                “I love it here,” said the woman. “And that disgusts me. That’s why I’m so relieved to hear that there are at least two people in the world who can see all of this clearly. Maybe their contempt will prod some of us to break free. We can hope. We can pray. Oh, I hope it’s me, I pray it’s me. Do you think they’ll come back around? Was tonight the only night they’re going to be doing this?” The woman took a step toward Neil, her eyes wide and intense.

                Neil was horrified. He took a step backward. “What’s wrong with relaxing?”

                The woman’s face twisted and her hood fell back, her hair spilling around her shoulders. “Are you saying you’ve never sensed the rot at the center of all this relaxing?” she asked. “You’ve never felt like there must be a higher purpose for your long weekends than campground-style relaxation?”

                “Like what?” asked Neil, taking another step backward.

                “If I knew, I wouldn’t be here,” said the woman. “I would be long gone.” She looked up and down the road, squinting into the darkness. “Do you remember what they said? Any of the cutting remarks, the insults, the cruel jokes at the expense of us campers? Did they make fun of the teen dance? Some of the best memories of my life are from the Chippertwig teen dance. Isn’t that awful?”

                “No!” said Neil. “And even if I did know what they said, I wouldn’t tell you!” He fled in such a hurry that when one of his flip-flops came off, he didn’t pause to slip it back onto his foot. He just scooped it up with his hand and kept going.


                The woman at lot 659 knelt in the dirt and leaned over a fading campfire, staring into it. She had moved a few of the bricks away from the edge of the fire pit so she could kneel closer to the fire. Her eyes reflected the flickering red flames, the glowing embers. Her hands were clasped behind her back. She wore sandals, jeans, a long-sleeved shirt with a picture of a tent on it. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that hung to her waist.  Neil guessed that she was older than him, but not by much. The RV parked on the lot was at least a decade old and showing its wear.

The woman did not look up from the fire when Neil stopped at the edge of the lot to watch her, but he could somehow tell that she was aware of him. “Hello,” he said. It seemed like a strange way to begin a conversation with this particular woman, but he knew enough to know that he didn’t know the right way to begin a conversation with this particular woman.

“Hello,” she said, graciously deigning to respond. She did not look away from the fire. If anything, she looked into the fire even more.

“Did you see two young men walk past here?” asked Neil.

“Yes,” said the woman. “The trespassers. The ones mocking the campground.”

“Yes!” said Neil, excited to find someone who seemed to be on his wavelength despite her outwardly strange behavior. “Those two! I’ve been trying to get someone to help me stop them but no one else thinks it’s a problem.”

“You need help?” asked the woman. She leaned so close to the fire that Neil wondered how she could stand the heat, even as small as it was.

“I need someone to call Security on them,” said Neil.

“You can’t do it?” asked the woman.

“No,” said Neil. “I can’t. Because…well, it’s embarrassing.”

The woman turned her head to look at Neil. Even with her eyes directed at him, they still reflected the fire, which wasn’t possible. Neil could see the flames writhing in them, the embers flaring. “Oh,” said the woman. “You’re a trespasser too. You’re afraid that if you contact Chippertwig Security to get rid of those two young men, then they’ll discover your infraction as well.”

“I…” said Neil. “That’s not…”

The campfire in the woman’s eyes grew brighter than the one in the fire pit, its flames flickering higher. “You’re so bothered by their disdain because it doesn’t even include you yet. You could tolerate disdain for your current situation because you hate it too. But disdain for where you aspire to be is too much for you to bear. It’s one thing for a dream to be distant. It’s another thing to find out that it’s possible for that dream to be considered stupid.”

“They only think Chippertwig is stupid because they don’t understand it,” said Neil. “All they see is grilling and golf carts and damp bathing suits on makeshift clotheslines and cracked Frisbees.”

“No one understands it,” said the woman. “But I understand it the most and you understand it the least.”

“But I love Chippertwig Campground,” said Neil. “Are you saying I only love it because I don’t understand it? That if I understood it as much as you do, I wouldn’t love it?”

“I don’t know,” said the woman. “I’m not a fortune teller.” The campfire in her eyes was crackling merrily now. Neil could hear it. Could almost hear it.

“I understand Chippertwig even less than those two guys who were making fun of it?” asked Neil.

“Yes,” said the woman. “Far less.”

“So they’re right to mock it?” asked Neil.

“Understanding and how you respond to that understanding are two different things,” said the woman. “What if they understand Chippertwig more than you, but don’t understand anything about themselves? Anyway, understanding Chippertwig more than you isn’t saying much, so I wouldn’t worry about how ‘right’ they are. Did you know that some people believe Chippertwig Campground itself to be a mockery of so-called ‘real’ camping? They find Chippertwig offensive. They take it very personally.”

“Are you going to call Security on me for being a trespasser?” asked Neil.

“No,” said the woman. “I would also prefer not to attract the attention of Security to myself.” The campfire in her eyes, having reached a climax, was fading fast. It looked almost like the one in the fire pit again.

“Why?” asked Neil.

“I’m banned for life,” said the woman.

“You are?” asked Neil. “Why?”

“Chippertwig doesn’t like to be understood,” said the woman. “Not past a certain point, anyway.”

“How did you get your RV inside if you’re banned?” asked Neil. “How did you get this lot?”

“This isn’t my RV,” said the woman. “This isn’t my lot.” The campfire in her eyes had almost gone out. Only a faint glow remained. “Excuse me,” she said, and she turned her eyes back to the fire – the real fire – and stared into it so deeply that Neil thought her eyes might actually suck the campfire through her face and into her head.


                Back in his tent, lying on top of his sleeping bag instead of inside of it despite the chill in the air, Neil could not sleep. The closest lot was less than a hundred yards away through the woods, but Neil felt as if it were a hundred miles away. He hated that feeling. He wondered if the two young men were gone now, back to their beds in their rooms in their houses outside of the campground, or if they were still walking laps, ridiculing Chippertwig unimpeded, ignored or even welcomed by those who should have been doing everything in their power to stop them.

                Neil rummaged through his backpack until he found his matches and a small notebook, unzipped his tent, and crawled out into the woods. A twig snapped nearby, a sound Neil had finally grown used to hearing. It no longer made his heart race. Wisps of fog had crept in among the trees and as Neil made his way down to the Runoff River, gathering dry sticks along the way, he found that it was thickest over the slow-flowing water. He found a level spot on the bank and formed a small ring out of rocks he pried from the mud. Within this ring, he arranged his sticks, added a few torn pages from the notebook, and struck a match. Soon, his fire was healthy. Not big, but sustainable. He fed it two larger sticks which the fire happily began to consume. He repeated this process for a while. He even left the fire unattended for a few minutes while he went to find more sticks. Eventually, though, the fire began to die and Neil gave it no more fuel. Instead, he squatted next to the fire, clenched his eyes shut for a few seconds, and then opened them and gazed into the fire’s hot, glowing center.

                Smoke drifted into Neil’s eyes and they began to water. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. He squinted at the fire, but his eyes only watered more. Neil rose and moved to the opposite side of the fire, squatted again, and stared into the fire, but the wind must have changed direction because within seconds, the smoke was back, stinging his eyes. Tears trickled from their corners. Neil knew his eyes must be red. They felt red. He could feel the redness. He moved to the side of the fire closest to the river and squatted again, the water lapping at his heels, but again the smoke followed him. Tears streamed from Neil’s irritated eyes as he pressed the heels of his hands against them, brightly-colored lines zig-zagging through the blackness. He tried squatting by the last remaining side of the fire that he hadn’t yet tried, but he knew what would happen. The smoke came for him, his eyes filled and spilled over, he coughed, his nose ran, and he caught only the most fleeting glimpse of the dying fire’s center, a glimpse that imparted no understanding, a glimpse that served only to remind him of all that he was missing.

                Neil stood, walked to the river, cupped his hands, and stooped to fill them with cold water. He threw the water on the fire, which hissed in a way that sounded almost mocking, but the hiss weakened with each subsequent dousing until its mockery was silenced and all that remained of the fire was a smear of wet ash and a curl of smoke that would never – could never – find its way to Neil’s tired eyes.

Discussion Questions

  • What’s the best use for a long weekend that you can conceive of while acknowledging that you are trapped inside of your own limitations?

  • What’s the oldest lifeguard you’ve ever seen?

  • What percentage of your feelings about things would you estimate comes from your lack of understanding of those things?

  • What is it about people who are both poorer than you and richer than you that makes them so obnoxious?

  • For what do you most deserve to be mocked?

  • Would you rather realize that a dream is more distant than you thought or dumber than you thought? Why?