At Camp This Summer
Hussein runs down the rocky hill behind the tennis court in flip flops (though he is not wearing socks with his flip flops as Mahmoud, his cousin, is—white ones with red lint clinging to the toes).
Mahmoud: “Wallah I swear to God, Hussein, if you hit it out of bounds one more time!”
Unlike Mahmoud, Hussein’s mother is not Lebanese, though his father is—their parents back at their tents preparing dinner. Mahmoud looks forward to lamb and chicken skewered with onions and tomatoes, but Hussein has an appetite for hamburgers. He can’t think about that right now, though—he can’t let this ball fall into the lake like the last one.
He repeats: “I’m sorry, Mahmoud, I’m sorry!”
The gates behind the court
are not tall enough. The net
sags, black marks along its top,
smudged chalk drawings
from the children
that morning, the largest pictures
the ones drawn by the Arab boys,
the girls’ artwork tucked
in the corners.
Across the street, five teenage girls giggle. Two wear black scarves around their heads, elaborate tassels on the pins, trickles of sweat on their temples. Three wear towels and bikini tops.
They emerge in the mornings
from the row of green canvas tents
behind them. They are starfish
on the beach in the day;
with the white boys at night.
They watch Mahmoud and Hussein:
Hussein throws the ball back up the hill
but his aim is way off.
Up another hill, toward the center
of the campground, the pool is quiet:
earlier, someone was running, slipped,
hit their chin on the pool’s edge.
You could hear the sirens
even out at the fishing lake,
lifeguards forcing everyone
out into the bathrooms.
Years ago, the campground, like the city
that owns it, was, shall we say,
not particularly diverse. The pool remains
mostly white while the Arab campers
and single-day visitors
take instead to the beaches.
The blood spiraled in the chlorine.
Now, crisscrossed sunlight
checkers the ripples—
adjacent kiddie pool enclosed
by chain-linked fences;
a four-year-old girl
in her pajamas
sits alone in its center.
“No, Mahmoud, that’s deuce. Isn’t it?”
“Hussein, wallah it’s 40-30. Serve the damn ball.”
Another yellow Ford truck clatters down the road, passing the tennis match, passing the girls—sputtering exhaust. The arms of green-shirted teenagers sitting in the truck bed hang over the sides—a miracle they do not scrape their skin on the rust. They are summer workers who will go to their own homes after sundown and shampoo the smoke from their hair.
The smoke tickles the girls’ skin as they watch the tennis match.
“Isn’t it haram to cuss during Ramadan?” Yasmeen asks as she squirts sunblock into her palm.
“Wallah it is,” Amal says, wiping sweat from her forehead.
At one of the tents, an older man slowly smokes a water pipe, watching the truck pass. He lets the steam leak from the gray hairs of his nostrils as he leans back in a lawn-chair—probably someone’s grandfather or great uncle killing time while his family is out enjoying the grounds. A very small boy from the other side of the tent village with shorts too short and a shirt too long asks: “I’m doing a scavenger hunt! Do you have a bandana I can borrow?”
In Arabic, the man says: I don’t speak English.
The boy asks again but the old man stays silent, smoke twirling across his beard. The boy walks away, looking at the sky, passes the girls as they stare him down. He looks back toward the man, the man’s sandals, socks. A tennis ball hits the center of his stomach.
The boy falls onto pebbles in the center of the road, perhaps from the impact but perhaps merely from the surprise of it.
Mahmoud decides he’s done. He snatches Hussein’s racket and walks off. Hussein doesn’t know where Mahmoud is going—doesn’t ask, doesn’t care. The girls disperse, too, in different directions—some into their tents and others toward the beach. Hussein walks over to the boy, who is coughing—from the hit or from the truck’s smoke, maybe both.
Hussein reaches down to help him up.
Yesterday’s urine shakes
between the floor tiles
with the children’s steps.
Kyle is spitting into the soap dispenser, shoving in wads of toilet paper between hocks. When Quentin walks in, he asks Kyle to stop.
In the hallway: Ms. Davis whispers to her teaching assistant,
a small white woman from some university in the suburbs
who the kids know is temporary—will leave
soon. They both stand between two lines:
boys on the left,
girls on the right.
Three in each restroom at a time. One
comes out, one
goes in. It’s not
a race, but the boys brag
because they get done first. Once,
Tonya tried to pee standing up
so she’d be faster.
Kyle laughs when he hears Quentin’s request. He knows that Quentin has been taking Tae Kwon Do classes for almost a year. He knows that Quentin gets better grades. He knows he doesn’t need another reason to kick Quentin’s ass.
Michael sits in the stall, trying not to make noise; he knows he’s holding up the boys’ line, but he doesn’t care about that. He knows that Tonya will tease him about it, which, for him, is a win-win.
Once, Quentin heard Kyle say the word “defense” when he meant “offense,” and he tried to correct him. Quentin told him: “you try to use too many big words.” What he meant was: “you use too many words incorrectly.”
Now, Kyle smiles after spattering saliva on Quentin’s eyelid. Quentin’s martial arts teacher would tell him, “we learn to fight so we don’t have to fight.” He turns to go tell Ms. Davis. He doesn’t make it two steps.
Quentin can’t quite place the taste of the floor,
but he’s glad that tooth was already ready to come out.
He is thinking thoughts of pebbles, snail shells.
He is wearing a red shirt today, so he thinks
maybe mom won’t notice.
Two full minutes pass before Ms. Davis walks in to check on them.
She would gasp but she’s all out of gasps by now. She pulls Kyle off of Quentin, drags him out of the bathroom. Quentin picks up his tooth from the floor, wipes it on his jeans. Michael opens the stall door, sees the tampered-with soap dispenser, and walks past Quentin toward the door like nothing has happened.
James Forman K-12, after hours
I hear the story goes like this:
The janitor doesn’t even notice how fucked the desks are, anymore—pencil lead filling the crevices of dark wood, markings like tattoo sleeves, wire book baskets bent beneath. The radio plays slow R&B on WJLB’s The Quiet Storm. His broom slips on the green tile’s dust. He pushes it back and forth in arrhythmia with the scratching of his raspy voice. He squints his eyes on the high notes.
Outside in the schoolyard, Harold says: “Where did you drop it?”
Mac says: “I don’t know, dummy. It’s ‘round here somewhere. And why you wearin’ a white shirt? You want us to get caught?”
Harold’s a tall boy, thin arms and thinner legs—in a white t-shirt that would be too long on all his friends. He’s especially self-conscious in his skin at night.
Mac says: “You even know what it look like?”
They never notice the janitor inside who stares into the window like a one-way mirror—the radio on commercial break. He combs through his tight white curls with unwashed fingers, the dirt marbling through. He smiles to his reflection a sideways yellow smile.
* * *
The schoolyard’s littered with ripped books,
torn black neckties, plastic baggies
with green juice from the pickles
the middle school kids sell
at lunch. Rocks still, after
being thrown in the daytime.
We never tell the one
about the girl who made it
all the way around the swings. Why,
when we ain’t got a swing-set? Instead, we tell these stories:
They say: Tyrone hid a blunt by burying it and it grew a weed tree that the school had cut down.
They say: Tiarra got expelled for covering the halls in baby oil and Tina slipped and cracked her skull, died the next day.
They say: Markus was snowball champ ‘til he threw one so hard at his play-cousin they put her in foster care.
Mac and Harold know these stories.
We all do.
Shit, I’m sure even the janitor overhears us
talk about everything we know
to be true when he has a day shift,
scratching that hair as he pushes trash cans.
Shit, even the patchy schoolyard
knows all of this, just like it knows
the song in the daytime
when the gym teacher just throws out
five basketballs and reads to himself—
the vibrations of each full orange orb
bouncing against the tiled gym floor,
saying: “I’m here. I’m here.”
Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and is a Zell Fellow at University of Michigan. His writings have been given homes by The Collagist, The Journal, Bennington Review, and The Offing, among others. You can find him online at marlinmjenkins.tumblr.com and @Marlin_Poet.