Richard Spilman


Richard Spilman is the author of two books of short fiction: Hot Fudge and The Estate Sale. He lives in Wichita, Kansas, where he works hard to maintain no visible means of support.

Church Camp

The summer I was sixteen my parents shipped me off to church camp so they could spend ten days in Tahoe. They weren’t bad parents; they just wanted to party like grownups. They offered me three camps—soccer, wilderness, and engineering: all of which interested me, all of which I rejected thinking they’d cave and take me along. Bad move. The other camps filled, and I landed on the shores of Lake Geneva—in a church camp owned by Presbyterians. We’re Catholic, but it was the best they could do on short notice.

In middle school, I had toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, so the church part didn’t bother me. The setting was beautiful, the food was plentiful, and there were showers and flush toilets. Seven boys to a cabin and a college kid to ride herd on them, each cabin bearing the name of a dead Protestant. I was in Knox, where there was still an upper bunk available because two years earlier a kid in that bunk had been killed by rolling lightning. They showed me the burn.

I thought they were dicks. Not quite rich suburban kids, many from a mega-church bigger than the town I grew up in. Two hours in, it was easy to tell that for them religion was something to put on and take off like their designer clothes. I spent the first evening mucking in the shallows of the lake instead of making the lasting friendships the website promised—my cabin mates found that odd, but I’d come from the cornfields of Iowa, where a lake is a big deal; they’d come from Chicago, where nothing is a big deal.

The camp stood above the mouth of a little bay, just down the shore from a state park, and in the evening, when the boat traffic on the lake diminished, you could hear the water. I watched the sun purple the trees and then disappear, then the trees turn to black spires and the water to obsidian and the little private docks to millipede legs. A coyote, or what looked like a coyote, jogged the beach. As I was leaving, a loon called “where are you?” and after a few seconds another answered. A pack of girls passed by on the shoreline path, but they didn’t stop.

Next morning, right after breakfast, Theology. Most of them brought Bibles, leather-bound or like dolls wrapped up in cloth and lace. I had to borrow one. Catholics don’t carry Bibles. That’s what we have priests for.

My name is John, and the teacher, trying to make light, said, “Like Knox.”

I said, “Like my grandfather.”

He peered through his reading glasses at the class list. “Oh, you’re Catholic.” And the whole class smiled and stared like visitors at the zoo. I realized, for the first time, why pandas can’t mate in captivity.

Presbyterian beliefs astonished me. To them, there are no surprises. God etched everything in stone from the beginning of time, and we’re just acting out the script. Even the Presbyterian kids seemed shocked—apparently they don’t talk about Calvin in their Sunday Schools. One asked, “Why be good?” And the teacher said, “To please God.” To which I responded, “The dude who’s sending me to Hell?” Smiles all around. Being Catholic, I realized, might have advantages.

At lunch, each cabin sat dutifully together at one of the long trestle tables in the cafeteria, eating hamburgers and coleslaw. I’m left-handed so there was space between me and the next guy. Our college boy pointed to a passing girl, “There’s yours, Ratso.”

My name, unfortunately, is Ratzinger, which at the time had some cachet among my fellow Catholics.

She was tall and shapely and kind of pretty, if you like the nineteenth century—hair atop her head, long skirt, white blouse, a thin, almost ascetic face. The only girl in the cafeteria with a skirt on. She backed up and sprinkled cole slaw into the college boy’s hair. “In nomine patris et filii . . .” then forced her way between me and the guy next. It was a tight fit. Her thigh rode part-way up mine. I had a hard on before I knew her name.

“Mary. Not like the virgin.”

While our counselor went off to wash the shame out of his hair, she told me she was fifteen and came from Naperville, “the great white desert,” and this, in July, was her third camp of the summer. Like mine, her parents had gone on vacation, but they took a long-term view of the word “vacation.” The blouse gapped to reveal a turquoise bra, so she wasn’t entirely retro. Big hazel eyes that bugged in perpetual surprise. Barbed wire tattooed around her neck.

“I don’t have any Catholic friends.”

“Your loss,” I said. “What are you?”

“Cocaine Baptist.”

Knox began to pay attention.

But from there she went all NPR on us. She hated Bieber but loved Josh Ritter. Some piece of cloth she’d seen on TV proved Jesus was married—yada yada. And wasn’t it terrible about the Sahel? I was smart enough not to say, “The what?” Out of gratitude for the hard on, I tried to keep track, but she was way out of my league. Luckily, her counselor came to fetch her, and she pried herself free, her hand lightly on my shoulder. Knox lifted its collective eyes to Heaven.

After lunch, we were offered three choices: swimming, volleyball or rowing. And then another set of choices, and another: sports, photography, theater, cooking, chess, computer animation, even robots. Apparently they believed if they wore us out, we’d be too tired to misbehave. Poor babies.

The morning classes had been a surprise. When we weren’t theologizing, we talked about real issues—immigration and poverty and the Middle East and sex. One hour, every other day, nothing but sex—and without the usual Gothic undertones. Yes, the couple in charge talked about fornication as if it were a designer drug, but they really bought into the pleasures of marriage. Solution to all problems, instant purpose, true happiness—nonstop sex. They positively glowed, but then they were just out of college, so I’m sure they were walking the talk.

It was in that class Mary and I bonded, so to speak, arguing celibacy. She claimed priests gave up sex because they were closet queers—her words, and they let her use them. The class weighed in on her side, smug as racists at a Klan meeting. Being pissed made me eloquent. I told them celibacy was like marriage: a vow, a commitment, a passion. It was giving up something you like to please someone you love. Lots of people did it.

Peals of laughter from the cheap seats, but not from Mary. She reached past two people and squeezed my hand. My whole head turned crimson, and the teachers hurried on to abortion, which, surprisingly, they were all for. Maybe when you’re predestined, you don’t give a shit when or how people die.

Mary whispered, “I could never be a nun. I’m too pushy.”

And I laughed. “You’d fit right in.”

After that, we were a partnership—John and Mary LLP. The powers that be watched for PDA’s, but they didn’t keep us apart. As long as we weren’t rubbing the forbidden fruit, we were just two kids fighting over transubstantiation. Amazing how much ground you can cover facing each other in a canoe, especially when your canoe partner is wearing a one-piece that fits like an anatomy lesson.

Conversation is like prayer in this at least: that the words open you up and what spills out, even if it’s nothing more than “how are you, I’m fine” is a confession, and if the other person is paying attention, somewhere along the line, you receive absolution. It helped that Mary had strong opinions about everything—God, baseball, dirty bombs, the social life of ants. It allowed me to act ODD, which, as my parents know, is an incredibly easy posture for me to maintain. Arguing with her was like making out with words. After a while, we barely heard anyone else. We were moths circling each other’s light.

Until, during Vespers, she slipped into tongues. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. She always prayed like a sleeping dog, with little yips and snarls and hums—and the Presbyterians were okay with that—but once she started babbling, you’d have thought she was masturbating in public. They backed off. There were cries of distress. While it worried me, too, at least I knew what was happening. One of the counselors took out his contraband cell to call 911, and I stopped him. “She’s Baptist,” I said.

That’s all it took. They leaned back and went, “Ohhh!” Whatever our differences, Presbyterians and Catholics believe pretty much the same things about Baptists.

When she woke out of it, she was shaking all over. I held her, and they didn’t complain. “Sorry,” she said, “sometimes I go too deep.”

I stroked her hair. It was all I could think of to do. Later, my counselor told me the director had tried to contact her parents, but nobody answered.

It was summer, so Vespers had been outside on a hill with a cross, and after the service was over, we stayed. Mary curled up next to me. She asked me to rub her neck. A breeze riffled the lake and a big V of geese flew over. As I massaged her face, her neck, her shoulders, the evening turned to fire in the west; my flesh swirled warm and cold like paint stirred in a can and my skin puckered in goose bumps.

“You too,” she whispered.

Later that night, they had a meeting and agreed to let me hold her hand while we prayed. They figured it might anchor her. For us, it was a big incentive. We prayed a lot. I said the rosary, and the alma redemptoris mater, and sometimes, God forgive me, the tota pulchra es. She laughed at my Latin, but I told her to imagine millions of people over the centuries all speaking the same words. “You’re never alone.”

“When I pray, there’s no me anymore,” she said. “God takes over. It’s scary, but it’s never lonely.”

For a moment, I envied her.


Let’s get something straight: this is not a love story. There was amazement and passion and lust—lots of that—but not love, perhaps not even respect. A wonderful strangeness thrived in the soil of this kiddy Calvinism—it was around us and between us and in us, and it felt like electricity in our veins. Electricity can be magnetic, and sometimes ours drew us together and sometimes it flung us apart. A wild ride, but one we were familiar with. At that age ambivalence is the air you breathe. I cared and I was repelled. I wanted her, and I wanted to drown her. Surely she felt the same about me. When things were beautiful, we savored them because we knew they wouldn’t last.

We were jealous all the time. One of the college boys tried to hook up with Mary on the sly, and we nearly came to blows. I helped some girls out of their canoes, and in the middle of a volleyball game Mary called me a prick and spiked a ball off my face.

Later, before Vespers, our backs against opposite trunks of a white birch, we talked, not about my bloodied nose, but about our families. My parents, I told her, were nurses—my dad at an old folks home and my mom in an emergency room—good Catholics who laughed at the Pope’s infallibility and at the idea that Jesus’ brothers were really cousins, but who also, rain or shine, sick or well, made every day of obligation.

“They called it a second honeymoon,” I groused. “They told me they wanted to gamble. Who goes gambling on their honeymoon?”

She reached around and bopped me on the head. “They’re not gambling.” That must have been forgiveness because she moved over next to me and squeezed my thigh.

Her parents, she said, took separate vacations, “time off from each other,” and they made it a rule never to question what happened when they were apart. “I’ve never spent a summer with both of them.”

“Then the church camp thing is just bullshit?”

“No, they believe. They just can’t stand each other.”

At some point the powers that be set some girl from Wheaton to watch us, but that didn’t change much. She had a thing for one of the camp staff, a boy from Poland who was on one of those “see America through the back door of a kitchen” gigs. She kept a low profile. The only time she intervened, we were watching the skiers on the lake and talking about how hard it would be living in a dying world. We got into a fight over the oil spill in Louisiana, where engineers had been trying all day to install a ten-story cap but were having no luck because the oil plume lifted it like a tornado lifting a car.

I thought it was funny. She pulled out her contraband cell and showed me pictures of pelicans covered with oil and called me an asshole. Miss Wheaton came over to spread platitudes over our troubled waters.

When we got up, I patted Mary on the butt and she said, “Dream on, asshole.”

That night I awoke to vividly unreligious dreams and at breakfast I handed her a note. She put it in her jeans pocket. Later, some girl handed me a paper plate with the words “me too” scrawled inside. I felt like a spy.

Of course, everybody knew what was going on—and probably suspected a lot more than was actually happening. We expected any moment to end up in church camp solitary confinement, but just the opposite happened. The adults treated us delicately, as if we were made of glass, and the kids covered for us and kept us from killing each other.

Toward the end of our two weeks, there was a softball game with Methodist kids from across the lake, and afterward a bonfire and smores. We stayed long enough to make our presence known then slipped away to that spot just beyond the camp where I’d gone the first day. A wide lawn led from a huge white house with wraparound porches down to the water’s edge. We put a blanket behind a stand of chokeberry near the shore so our moonlit shadows were invisible to people from the camp but pretty much open to anyone across the water.

Instantly we were fumbling, and laughing because neither her clothes nor mine would cooperate, so we managed without their cooperation, and it was over way too soon. I felt betrayed by my body. Mary seemed amused—stranger neither to the act nor the disappointment. She pulled my hair across my cheeks as if she wanted to tie the strands under my chin. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to pull out?” Then she yanked hard. “Father John.”

To be honest, I didn’t, and at that moment I didn’t care—though I told her I was sorry, which was, in some distant way, true. She tugged again, “Don’t you ever apologize!”

She helped me take off her clothes and I helped her take off mine, and for a while, we sat there naked in front of God and everybody, looking across the cove at the lights of the houses on the other side. There was no wind and the water was calm. The waves were black and seemed almost petrified as they shone in the moonlight. A single loon floated on the surface near us, dove and seemingly minutes later came back up, veered in our direction and dove again.

There were scars on the insides of her thighs. I ran my fingers along them. They were perfect chevrons, one after another as if someone had been keeping count on her leg. “Battle scars,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about them.”

Then she took my hand, and we went into the water, our white bodies glowing. On the shingle the moonlight seemed like a path angled in our direction and we stumbled along it into the water. Then we lay back, still hand in hand, and floated. The loon hadn’t moved, but it backpedaled, watching us.

“In my world,” she said, “they make sense.”

I sidestroked and we kissed, splashing the bird away. “We’re going to get caught,” I said. It wasn’t fear, it was a fact like “you might get pregnant.”

“I know.”

If all we’d wanted to do was fuck, we might have put our clothes on and returned to the bonfire and fed each other smores and hoped for the best. Instead, we lay back on the water and talked about love, which, oddly enough, neither of us believed in—about going off somewhere no one could bother us, a cabin in the wilderness, an island. I wanted to take care of her, I said, and she told me I was the one who needed care. After a while, we swam back to the blanket, and she showed me what to do. Then we put our clothes on and went back to face the music.


The camp director did us the courtesy of assuming the worst. “Your parents,” she said, “are going to be furious.”

Mary laughed. “You don’t know my parents.”

We were separated. Our counselors were reprimanded. PDA’s were banned for everyone, but since there was only one day left, and since this is America, the notoriety made us popular. I’ve never had so many girls smile at me.

What communication we managed came by text on our contraband cells and was mostly about escape. I offered California. “Anywhere,” she typed back. “But don’t come if not on a white horse.”

I texted I didn’t have a white horse.

“Find one,” she admonished. “I deserve it. Carrying your child.”

Our last night we made plans to meet in the morning—what could they do?—and say goodbye. We exchanged emails and addresses and home phones.

“Grinnell, “ Mary typed. “You mean like Iowa!!!! Why the Hell didn’t you tell me?”

“Does it matter?” I asked.

“The kid will grow up deformed.”

Next morning, I looked for her, but Wheaton told me someone had come very early. “It’s not us,” she said. “I promise. It was something about a flight.”

I wondered why Mary hadn’t knocked on our cabin door—no one would have stopped her. According to Wheaton, she didn’t even try.

I packed in five minutes, then attended the final service, where a preacher with perfect hair admonished us to remember the spiritual lessons, not just the fun and fellowship. Then there were the goodbyes. Several guys told me to look them up, and seemed to mean it—more than I did, anyway. I felt like a jerk.

Back at the little notch in the shore where we had walked out into the water, the ground bore little trace of what we’d done. I wanted to feel sad or scared or angry, but I didn’t feel any of that. I felt calm and happy and rather proud of myself.

There was a water skiing competition starting up on the other side of the cove. It looked like practice mostly—people trying out maneuvers and shouting things to the boat.

I imagined meeting her twenty years from now, maybe with her family, and she introducing me as “a friend from camp.”

At one side of the white house, in spite of the commotion across the way, does nuzzled a stand of raspberry that grew next to a vegetable garden, picking out leaves and chewing them with a sidewise motion. When one pushed aside a branch to get further in, the exposed leaves glittered with dew.

My cell phone hummed. A text from Mary. “Help! Abducted by aliens!”

I typed, “What do they look like?”

“One like Mom. The other definitely not Dad.”


“Not first time. Save me, pleeezzzzz? White limo.”

“Need a license.”

“You don’t have a license??? Hell of a knight.”

“How about a cab?”


“Where are you going?”

No response.

“Miss u.”

No response to that either, and my call went to voicemail.

I sat for a long time. The skiers went elsewhere, and there were loons feeding. They dove, and dove again. It’s amazing how long they can stay under water.

Then my mother texted. “Almost there. How RU?”

I replied. “Met a girl, got laid. How RU?”

Then I shut the phone and went back to get my things.

I have no idea where this story came from or why. It just appeared one day and I rustled its bones together into some kind of order. There's plenty of me in it, of course: an area I knew as a child, religious views I have been at least tangentially connected to at one time or another. But finally, I think, it has nothing to do with me or my experiences and everything to do with my sense of the beautiful, lumbering absurdity of humanity’s contact with God—a reality that lives despite our attempts to box it into convenient corners. I am fond of both central characters but would pay money not to sit next to either of them on a long bus trip.