Crazy George lived in a van, moving around from campground to campground. He was an old grizzled drunk, like my dad, so they didn’t get along. They would, however, drink together, because a drunk never likes to be the only one. Dad had an old beat-up chessboard that folded in on itself, each of the pieces glued to a magnet so they stuck to the board when the games were played in parking lots, or bars. He and George would stare at the board for hours, sitting on folding chairs around a small camp table. Someone would move a piece, both would drink. Someone wouldn’t move a piece, and both would drink. Mom was probably off scrubbing toilets or collecting money from campers. Sometimes some of us kids would stand around and watch, but we grew bored quickly and would wander off into the forest or down to the river.
Dan and Theresa also lived in a van. They stayed for a while at one of the campgrounds my parents were managing in Clackamas, that magical summer from which each memory is imprinted on my mind the way a flash from a camera imprints briefly on your vision, after you’ve closed your eyes. I am sure they got a special deal, because Dan liked to drink too and he would bring beer by, and Theresa. She had a great big long-haired dog named Woofus, who would sit down behind you and groom you on command, his teeth rubbing against you in little nibbles like fishbites. It tickled, and we would laugh and squirm while he did it. I had never seen mom with a friend before, a friend who was a real girlfriend and not just the wife of one of my dad’s “associates.” They laughed, and laughed, and laughed until they rolled on the ground. They drank beer together, and hid behind trees whispering about boys. I crowded them, wanting to be a friend too. They always let me hang out, never getting annoyed. I liked this mom, one who wasn’t cowed and tired and who acted like a 12-year-old girl. Like me. We set up a dome tent behind the trailer, and we had girls’ campouts where we could watch the campfire die down through the thin grey screen of the tent’s door. Theresa gave me a journal, which she inscribed with her name and the date in a loopy, flowing script. Theresa Sheffield, June 1994. “Don’t stop writing,” she said. “You are going to be famous one of these days.” At that point, I might have believed her. I searched for her years later, finding maybe 10 women of the same name who were still in the area. I called them all, but no one knew the slight blonde who had been called T-Bird in high school, who had a penchant for loser men, who had a dog who thought everyone needed to be cleaner. I wanted my mom’s friend back. I wanted her to have a friend from then, from when we were still a family and when adventure was the only way we knew how to live. I wanted to see if she had changed. I wanted to capture that summer and never let it go.
One night Dan got wasted around our campfire and decided he wanted to pierce his nose. I went to bed, and the next morning he was sitting at our wooden picnic table holding his face.
“What did you do, Dan? What’s wrong?” I thought he had a hangover. He did, but it was worse than that.
Mom’s lips were stretched tight across her teeth, her mouth a thin straight line. She might have been trying not to laugh. Dad was somewhere, taking a walk in the woods or having his quiet time alone. He needed space, especially after a bender of a night. We always welcomed the reprieve, our shoulders floating upward as some hidden weight was taken away.
Mom gently pried Dan’s fingers apart and exposed his nose, his big beak-like nose. He had somehow jammed a large safety pin right through the center of theseptum. She barely brushed against it and he cried out in pain, tears springing to his eyes. The whole area was a furious red.
“What in the heck did you do that for?” Mom asked him, pushing his hands away from his face again, as they had sprung back up in a protective gesture. She grinned over his bald head at me, then looked down again with nothing but concern on her face. Dan was in love with Mom, and everybody knew it. “Where’s Theresa?”
“Sleeping,” he moaned. “Please, get it out, please just take it out.”
Mom cleaned it with alcohol and yanked it out in one smooth move. Dan’s yell echoed through the valley. He disappeared quickly, into the tent behind our trailer. Bearlike retching sounds came from behind the vinyl walls all day, punctuated with “Fuck you, get outta here! Leave me alone!” Every now and then the zipper would open and his head would pop out, spewing the clam chowder he’d had for dinner last night.
We had a chant, after that, “Dan, Dan, the drinking man, he lives in a van. He whips up chowder as fast as he can, and his nose is as big as a beer can!” We ran around laughing hysterically, rolling our eyes and punching each other to punctuate the singsong chant.
Dan didn’t like it, at all, and we had to whisper it when he was around.
After a few months, Dan and Theresa went their separate ways, Dan off in his van and Theresa back to her family. Their short relationship didn’t hold up after Dan fell in love with Mom. She said he needed a mommy. After they left the summer had a strange feel, as if it were curling up and browning at its edges, as if it or we had crossed a threshold. A few weeks later the clouds rolled in, and the days grew darker. Things began to mold, and slugs crawled out of their holes to leave slime trails like silken threads over everything. We were stuck in the trailer together, the musty smell of us overwhelming. Not many campers showed up.
On one increasingly rare sunny day, Dad drove us in the van to George’s camping spot. He was sloppy drunk when we got there, and it somehow quickly degraded into a shouting match. “I’m going to kill you you motherfucker!!” We heard George screaming, and then Dad got into the van with his set and joyous face, the way he looked right before there was trouble. “Come get me, prick,” he said calmly out the window, and then he drove us back to our campground. George waved a big machete at us as we left him at his van.
The rest of the day we waited breathlessly for the blood. George was coming to kill Dad! What would we do? Was someone going to die? It’s all we could talk about out of the earshot of the grownups.
Crazy George had a knife! But Dad had a gun. We thought we knew who would win. A few days later, with no George appearing, we packed up and headed south to escape the rains.
– Edited July 23rd after using some helpful memories shared by my younger siblings.