Joe Kapitan

One fork in the path, two choices—the right one and I’m back at camp before dark; the wrong one would take me out to Interstate 77 or the mud-colored Muskingum River before I realized I was lost, certainly for the night, maybe for two. I was used to getting left behind. I’d learned to read dirt.

The lights were on over the cabin porches by the time I got back.

Kevin looked up as I slammed the screen door.“Your horse sucks, dickhead!” he laughed. “Joey, you got the worst horse in camp!” Robbie gave me the finger. The fat kid, Edwin, called me a loser again. Loser Joey and his loser horse. When names had some whiff of truth to them, they seemed to cut meaner, like dull blades, their edges rubbed in salt. The truth: I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror in 1977. I was wire-thin, had these protruding ears, big plastic-rimmed eyeglasses. When Frank assigned horses to the Cheyenne campers, he sized me up, pointed to sad-looking chestnut gelding and said, “Pancho.”

Pancho hated movement. He liked standing still, dazed, chewing greenery. He didn’t want a rider, or to ride. Resistance was his only weapon. Other kids’ horses had energy. Robbie couldn’t keep his filly Duchess from randomly busting out into trots or flat-out sprints. If Pancho had ever had that kind of spirit, something had killed it off. If Bear Creek were long ago, in Nevada, someone would have already put a bullet between Pancho’s eyes and called it progress.

Spending two weeks of summer at Bear Creek Dude Ranch was supposed to get us away from the names. Mom was busy all spring talking to lawyers and chain-smoking again and crying on the back porch after chasing us into bed. Dad was three months into the twelve-month stay he owed the State of Ohio for embezzlement. As Dad explained it, he had borrowed some money, but those damn bastards hadn’t given him the chance to pay it back. And then he was carted off to Youngstown. We saw him two Sundays a month. I was twelve, and this was the world I got, ill-fitted and cheaply sewn.

Mom wanted us out of the house, me and Kevin. Kevin was “acting out”, she said. Fist-fighting, shoplifting, calling her a bitch. She wanted us to grow up into better men. We needed better role models. We needed summer camp. We needed to be around horses, and to be around the kind of men who were around horses.

We were both placed in Cheyenne Cabin. Our counselor was Frank. Frank was twenty-two and looked three parts biker, one part cowboy. He had hair down to his shoulder blades. He listened to AC/DC and kept a pack of Marlboros stuffed up under the sleeves of his T-shirts, like an extra squared-off muscle on top of all the other rounder ones. Frank smoked weed after lights-out (said Kevin). Frank was having sex with some of the female counselors (reported Kevin, he’d seen it!) I was scared of Frank, because I wanted to know more about him, and because Kevin wanted to be him.

About half an hour after lights out, I heard Kevin climb down from his bunk and slip out the front door. I waited twenty minutes.

Between the camp light poles and the half-moon, I could make out the trail to the counselors’ cabins. There were lights on in the first one. I circled it, looking for Kevin peering into windows. No Kevin.

I found a folding chair to stand on. In the first window: pizza boxes, beer cans. The second: Tammy the aquatics instructor was straddling Alex, counselor from Apache. Tammy’s bra was off and Alex cradled a round breast in each hand.

The third window was the back bedroom. I could stand on the edge of the rain barrel and just see into the corner of the glass. A lamp was on. Frank was there, holding a Polaroid. Every few seconds a bright flash blinded me. Kevin stood across from him, drinking a beer. Kevin’s shorts were pulled down to his knees.

I felt like puking. My foot slipped. I fell off the barrel into a holly bush, banging my knees against the cedar siding on the way down. I wasn’t fast enough. Frank had a flashlight on me before I could slip into the shadows.

I was late to the stables the next morning for the trail ride. I still felt sick.

I went to gear up Pancho, but he wasn’t in his stable. In his place stood a big gray Appaloosa, muscles revving and rippling, a good two feet taller than Pancho.

Frank shuffled past. “You’re on Ranger now,” he said, studying his clipboard.

Back at home, Mom asked how camp was. I said “fine.” It was so much easier than trying to explain how I liked the fizz of cold beer on my tongue, how it felt to be cool for once, how I didn’t mind the flash in my eyes as long as no one touched.

Joe Kapitan lives in northern Ohio. He has recent work at A-Minor, Hobart (Web) and Notre Dame Magazine. His collection of short-short fiction will be published this summer by Eastern Point Press.