The Many Deaths of Summer
An excerpt from the novel Death of an Animatronic Band
When the investigators came, they came in dark suits with dark sunglasses and pencil thin moustaches. One was fat, the other thin. They wore ties. Leather shoes. They wore hats that shaded everything but the tips of their noses. They smelled like old hallways in houses with kerosene lamps. When they arrived in their old Cadillac, the wheels pulled up the camp drive, squeallingly, and stopped short in front of the main office. They stepped out. The screen door flapped behind them. Wind blew through the trees.
They lived in the nearest town — cousins of the camps’ proprietor, he called them so as not to call the police. They interviewed everyone. The thin one chewed his pencil while the fat one took notes. They asked questions with an irregular and uncoordinated rhythm, often interrupting or talking over one another. The thin one sweated and the fat one took off his hat, wringing its brim as though under some great stress. The fat one had shiny, short hair. He kept a comb in the inside pocket of his coat. When he smiled, which was often, his smile showed more gum than tooth. He made regular mention of his gout, as though it were a spouse or, perhaps, a very dear and rascally companion. Despite the failure of this device, it was, apparently, intended to give his interviewees a false sense of security. To distract them. To make them confess. Always he followed up with, “Where were you when Barry Maguire disappeared?”
If the thin one wasn’t chewing on the erasure of a pencil, he was chewing on his own tongue. Against the pallor of his jaundice complexion, it was dull and mauve — a blue clam, or the foot of a mussel. Often he rolled his tongue over, to chew the underside with its thick blue veins, and it lolled around in his mouth, an amoebic, suffering snake.
They came every day at ten a.m. They carried Styrofoam coffee cups and regularly refilled them in the main camp office before going to the spare cabin, where Barry used to live.
They had been looking for the missing boy over a week.
They seemed to hang around waiting for a subsequent death. More and more, they strayed from their verbal inquiries and scoured the campground looking, it seemed, for something — another body. They could be seen turning canoes over, canoes that had been on the beach over night. They started nosing through the laundry room. They wandered through the woods and campers began to avoid the peripheral pine trees, in case the investigators caught them off guard or followed them. When the camp went on a field trip, Max (who came back early, he forgot something) found them searching peoples’ rooms.
Once they came to the bonfire at night and after that no one talked to them ever again not about anything not anything anything anything at all.
Obligatory interviews with the visiting therapist were no better.
It was one thing to have a death in the camp — a death in summer’s family — quite another to entertain interlopers from elsewhere, adults who came into their community to observe the behavior of respective inhabitants — many of whom were still convinced that Barry had not died at all. He could have run away, he could have been abducted by aliens, or vanished in the Rainbow Stream of Consciousness. Because he disappeared on the lake, because he probably drowned, there was no evidence and thus, theories of his whereabouts grew wild.
The therapist was a middle-sized woman with gold jewelry and modest glasses and brown floofy hair — it was always down and set, mysteriously, in the exact same position, trimmed like a topiary that perfectly framed her very central, round face. She looked kind and smelled clean, she had no polish on her nails and always wore pleated khaki shorts with the shirt tucked in, the waist just below her ample chest, tied with a thick belt. She wore ankle socks and sneakers. She had pink cheeks.
She looked like a mother, someone said. But that’s just to trick you, someone else replied (at the campfire after Boggis and Bunts had left already). She met kids in the cafeteria when the cafeteria was closed. And slowly, over the course of her residence, the cafeteria stopped smelling like food and smelled only like her — that antiseptic floral sweet, something so oppressive, the campers stopped attending meals.
3. She said, for instance:
I notice you bite your fingernails. I notice you twirl your hair when you’re talking. I take it you have trouble making eye contact. I notice you rubbing the thighs of your pants with the palms of your hands. Do you bite the inside of your cheek? I see your fingers are stained. When you roll your eyes I feel like you are avoiding something. You look pale. You are looking at my crotch. How often do you masturbate? Do you like boys?
I notice you make jokes when you’re uncomfortable. You make yourself uncomfortable. Do you always dress this way? What do you think you tell people with the way you dress, the way you stand, the way you sit? You make yourself look different. You like being uncomfortable. You identify with being an outsider. What is your favorite color? When you were a teenager you cut yourself. You avoid taking responsibility for your life. It’s a defense mechanism to keep people out. So you won’t ever have to try/ be rejected/ fail.
I notice you don’t like talking about yourself. Put this jump rope around your chair. Loop it around, yes just like that, make a circle. Like an aura. Inside the jump rope is your safe place. Nothing can hurt you inside the jump rope. Now. Tell me what you’re thinking.
Do you always sit that way? Tell me about your work. Tell me about your friends here. Do you like the people here? Do you like your roommates? Is there someone you’re particularly worried about? Someone who is particularly violent? Tell me about ghosts. When did you last see Barry? Take this jump rope. Loop it around yourself. Don’t be scared. Inside the jump rope is your safe place. It’s your womb. Here. I brought some stuffed animals especially for you. They were just in my office, this is Garfield. This is Snoopy. This is a Valentine bear. A Smurf. Pick one. Pick as many as you like. You can put them inside of your jump rope and they can protect you. See, Teddy Bear says I love you. He’s holding a heart for you. Now. Tell me. Tell me about your suicidal tendencies. Do you ever want to kill someone?
I notice you’re frustrated. I notice a degree of aggression in your tone. I notice you’ve gained weight. Would you say you use alcohol as an escape? I notice that your face is dirty. Often people who are mourning lose sight of their hygiene. Often people in mourning abuse substances. You have shit on your pants. You have period blood on your ankles. You have semen on your face.
One day when the investigators came, they came across Sonia in the shower, naked save for a wet t-shirt, her neck painted to look slit, the water running pink. When she opened her eyes and moaned like a zombie the investigators screamed. She laughed. She wiped her fake blood on their shirts.
Peter, screaming with his hands in the air, ran through the bonfire and fake-lit himself on fire.
Roger devised a reed, like he’d read about in the Disney version of Robin Hood, such that he could float face down in the lake and still breath. Someone put a fake knife in his back. He stayed like that for an hour and when the investigators finally rowed out to touch him with a stick he didn’t move. When they swatted his legs like a schoolteacher, he didn’t move either. When the fat one reached in to pull him onto their canoe, to pull him by the collar of his shirt, he splashed up and roared and the canoe tipped over and everyone was in the water and Roger laughed very very very hard.
Grant hid under one of the canoes on the beach, he wrapped himself in seaweed, he painted himself pale. He put subtle sparkles on his entire white-blue body because, he said, he still wanted to be beautiful. When the investigators looked under the rowboat he lay still. They said, “Alright that’s enough, kid.” But they sounded nervous and they bent over anyway because the skinny one said the kid didn’t look like he was breathing. So they bent over and then Grant lunged up and bit one of them on the neck until it bled.
One by one, the campers waited to talk to the therapist. They waited on the bench outside of Barry’s bunk. The investigators were inside also. Campers were not allowed to talk. Grant was last; still dressed macabre.
“I heard she called our parents,” Sonia whispered.
“Thank god,” said Roger. “At least maybe now we can go home.”