“Crisco,” a short story
This week’s post of fiction will be a little different. It’s a short story with the same main characters—Jacob and Henry—but it doesn’t take place at Hudson School. Rather, it occurs at summer camp around the same year. It’s from Henry’s point of view looking back, but he relates the story in 1st person, rather than in 3rd, as in the novel. Next week we’ll be back at Hudson School.
a short story
by SK Figler
(© 2020 by SK Figler)
The Dorman Brothers – Ed, Paul, and Martin — ran a summer camp in the decade after World War II. It’s where I learned a kid could die.
It was called Camp Evergreen in Maine on Serene Lake a mile from Oronoc Village. My older brother and I were campers for several summers, our mother parking us there to “get some freedom, for God’s sake,” like we were her jailors.
During the school year, when our mother went out dancing on Friday nights, her last words on closing the door, were, “Don’t fight, boys.” But at summer camp Jake and I got along okay, usually, sort of, maybe because we didn’t live in the same room or even in the same bunk. But this is not directly our story, although we were both there for the tragedy, which is what Ed, Paul, and Martin called it.
The Dorman brothers got along well enough to run Camp Evergreen for twelve years, which was older than I was at the time. Here is an example. Directly across the lake was Camp Willow for girls. In my brother’s bunk was a boy from Shaker Heights named Mike Kleiner. During our annual mid-summer songfest held in the Oronoc Village Grange Hall and shared with Camp Willow, Mike Kleiner met a Willow girl whose name I forget, but who had stunning gray eyes, so stunning I can picture them fifty years later. Lets call her Karina, a name I’ve always liked. Maybe I like it because it was her name.
Mike Kleiner was very athletic, the best athlete “pound for pound,” as they say, at Evergreen. He could throw a baseball…well, I needn’t get into that. He certainly was our best swimmer. And Mike wanted to see Karina again. The word got around so that even the littler kids my age heard about it, though we didn’t know why he wanted to see her so much. He could have stolen a canoe and paddled across the lake, but Mike Kleiner, recently bar mitzvahed, wanted to prove his manhood.
Serene Lake was cold, as any lake in Maine would be, so cold that every morning and afternoon at General Swim (I capitalize it because of its importance to the powers that were), boys were given demerits for not getting wet at least up to their chin. It was so cold that during Color War the last week of camp, a kid could lose his team—the entire camp was split into the Red team and the Blue team, even counselors— ten points per General Swim, which, as I said, was twice a day, meaning twenty whole points taken off your team’s score. Points already earned were wiped out. Imagine that, and imagine the response of your teammates, especially the counselors, who were from rival fraternities at Bowdoin College.
At the mess hall—the Dorman brothers had all served on ships of the line during World War II—on the night in question, my brother came over to my bunk’s table—he never did that—and whispered that he wanted me to be at his bunk at exactly 11:00, a whole hour-and-a-half after Taps and lights-out. That was the time, well-known by campers, that the counselors were drunk but not yet finished telling each other lies down by the Indian fire-pit. I thought Jake—he was Jacob everywhere but summer camp—wanted finally to be friendly with me.
When the glowing green hands of my watch—I checked it every minute or so—showed two minutes before 11:00, I slid out of bed, already fully dressed, went Indian-style down the seven steps, and followed the well-worn path through the tall pines to Jake’s bunk. He and all of his bunkmates were outside huddled around Mike Kleiner in his swimsuit, bouncing around like a boxer before the first round. I think he was just trying not to shiver. When I got up to my brother and the group, he said, “Where’s the Crisco?”
I said, “What Crisco?”
Which was followed by moans and “Great!” and “Oh, great!,” and “Punk-ass kid,” which came from Jake. He claimed he had told me at dinner to get a big can of Crisco. “I told the kid Crisco cans were stacked under the big steel table, the one that runs down the center of the kitchen. He never listens.” But there out in the cold under the pines was the first time I knew where they kept Crisco or even that they used Crisco at all.
“I came over to your table and told you all about it, the Crisco,” Jake said.
“You didn’t,” I said.
“Why would I come over to a little kids’ table, then? In public.” he said.
“I don’t know, maybe to be friendly.”
“Why would I be friendly?”
“Fuck it! Forget it,” said Mike Kleiner. “I don’t need fucking Crisco.”
“That’s how Gertrude Ederle swam across the English Channel, smothered in Crisco,” someone said. It sounded like Lennie Rosenbluth, but I couldn’t be sure in the dark, until he said, “She was the first woman to do it. 1926. They called her the Queen of the Waves.” Yes, it was Lennie.. “Crisco was invented in 1911 by . . .”
“Shut up, Lennie,” Jake said. “A man don’t need Crisco.”
“She put it all over her so she wouldn’t freeze in the water.”
“Shut UP, Lennie!”
“I could use it, some Crisco.” It was Mike Kleiner, making sense and, better yet, contradicting Jake. Which got me thinking that slathered in Crisco, maybe General Swim wouldn’t be so bad.
Jake said, “Okay, go and get the fucking Crisco.” He was talking to me.
Mike Kleiner came over and put a hand on my head. He said, “Cause you’re a little kid. If you get caught, there won’t be as much trouble. The kitchen door in back is always open. You remember where the Crisco cans are?”
“Under the steel table.”
“Go,” Mike Kleiner said. “Get two.”
I ran through the woods along the path bordered by white-washed rocks, past the roaring campfire and the counselors yowling at someone’s joke, then out into the open to the back door of the kitchen. The screen door squeaked. I stopped halfway in. Nobody said, ‘Who goes there?’ like they do during Color War. I switched on my flashlight for just a second, saw the steel table and the blue and white cans on a shelf under it. I tucked one under each arm and with my flashlight stuffed in my pocket, I ran back toward the guys. I remember worrying about getting kicked out of camp if the Dorman brothers ever found out who stole the Crisco. Or maybe I’d just lose canteen privileges for awhile. The worst punishment would be if I had to hug a sappy pine tree half the night. Then I wondered whether I was supposed to bring a can opener. But they all heard Jake not tell me about a can opener, so I went on.
When I got back, I heard a lot of “Jesus!” and “God!” which seemed odd at a camp where everyone except the cooks were Jewish, because we don’t believe in the first and we’re not supposed to say the other’s name.
My brother ripped the Crisco cans away from me. He and Paulie Persoff went at the lids with a blade from Paulie’s Boy Scout knife. They all smeared the Crisco over Mike Kleiner’s body, then we all started down the path to the dock. “How do you know where to swim to?” Danny Rapaport asked.
Mike Kleiner took my flashlight, pointed it across the lake, and clicked the button on and off three times, then let it stay on. “God!” someone said when a light did the same thing in the distance. “Jesus!” said another. Jake said, “You lucky duck!”
We all followed Mike Kleiner onto the dock. He ran to the end and dove in like cold water meant nothing to him. He swam hard. We watched until we couldn’t see him anymore in the dark, although I could hear splashes.
The next morning at General Swim, a counselor spotted his body face-down in choppy waves. Camp Evergreen closed for good two days later. Martin, the brother I liked best because he wrote a novel about World War II, married an Olympic swimmer. They moved to Arizona and she somehow drowned in their backyard pool. He moved to Death Valley, California, where there is no water, and became a semi-famous painter of rocks.
Oh, and our mom had to come up from her hotel in the Catskills and suffer with Jake and me for the rest of the summer.