It’s been years since I saw Bill, so long ago that I’ve forgotten his last name. But I haven’t forgotten the way he laughed or how his heels lifted off the ground when he walked. I don’t know if he made it back to college after that summer, if he ever married, had children, or if what happened to him then defined the rest of his life. He disappeared into the world in that way that so many who pass through our lives are swallowed up by years, lost to memory. I want to believe he’s out there still, doing well. I want it as much as I wanted Solomon the cat to live on in those woods, a wild creature, doing just fine.
Bill and I were among twelve college students in camp counselor training that June, getting to know each other, setting up teepees, learning the woods’ trails, memorizing the camp songs we’d sing over and over in dining halls and on hiking jaunts with campers who would arrive the following week.
Bill rode a silver and red Honda motorcycle. On Saturday, when he headed to town to load up on snacks and supplies and said, “Anybody care to go with me?” I leaped at the chance.
“I’ll be glad to run you there in my truck,” offered Vernon. He was the caretaker, a pudgy, middle-aged man who’d lived in the house at the edge of camp property for years.
“Thanks, man. We’ll be fine.” Bill jumped the starter, the bike chuttered then caught, a couple of rips of the engine to fire it up, and we idled from the gravel lot toward town. Chapel Hill was a fifteen-minute ride down the two-lane country road, shaded by maples and oaks as young and full as we were with the promise of summer.
Bill’s dark curls spilled from the edge of his helmet. He was thin as a sliver, as restless as a hummingbird. He kept a bottle of bacon bits in his backpack, “for protein,” he said, and sprinkled them on eggs, sandwiches, salads, green peas, whatever was on his plate. Also inside that pack was a jar of peanut butter, and at any time of day, you could find him dipping a spoon into the jar. He was a vegetarian, and later Vernon would blame what happened to him on that, but Vernon was a generation older, had never known anyone who didn’t eat meat, and was a bit suspicious of the whole idea. It’s true, though, Bill was always hungry, the way those hummingbirds are always hungry, eating ten times their weight every day and burning off every bit of it with high energy.
* * *
A warm June Saturday. We parked along Franklin Street, headed first to the hardware store. The couple sat on the concrete sidewalk out front, a cardboard box between them. “Free kittens” read a sign scrawled on the side of the box.
Inside, five little ones, their fur still the fuzz of newborns, weaved around their mother, a petite tortoise shell, who sprawled the length of the box. It was as though a prism had split and divided its colors: one was white, one black, one orange, and two were a light gray. She didn’t seem to mind their jumping across her backside, curling into her tail, or chasing each other across her belly, their paws grazing her eyes and her nose, but she quickly pushed away the littlest gray one who tried to nurse.
“Can I hold him?” I asked. I handed my helmet to Bill and lifted the wiggly kitten. His legs raced in air and then calmed. He smelled of sun and milk, and his fur was soft cotton. His tiny squeaks eeked into the warm afternoon, his mouth open like a baby bird’s, the pale red of his mouth tender and new.
I claimed him. I wasn’t thinking about shots and neutering. I wasn’t thinking about food I’d have to provide all summer. I wasn’t thinking about after summer—I couldn’t keep a kitten in my dorm, and there’s no way my mother would let him stay at the house. Those were all details I’d figure out later. For now, all that mattered was that gray ball.
I curled him into my helmet. We thanked the couple and finished our errands—the drug store, the grocery. I was beyond in love. I’d begun the summer brooding and reserved. Still reeling from my father’s unexpected death a few years earlier, my first year of college had been difficult, and I wanted the escape summer offered. One week in, it seemed to be taking shape. The kitten was a comfort I should never have claimed but did.
When we climbed on the bike for the ride back to camp, I rebuckled the helmet, tucked the kitten under my shirt, and held my hand over the bump of his body. He lay unmoving against my belly, wiggling only slightly, as though he knew he needed to be still, as though he knew he was going home, and I was his new mother.
Bill helped me make a bed for the kitten, whom I named Solomon, ruffling a quilt into a corner of my cabin’s center room, which was barely large enough for the bed, dresser, and storage bench pushed against one wall. A screened window opened to the woods, enough for a breeze to waft through. Campers, scheduled to arrive the next day, would sleep in bunk beds in an adjacent room.
That first night, Solomon, delicately snoring, slept on my arm, his face against my ear. I woke to his soft paw on my cheek, his fierce hungry eyes, and a steady high-pitched “merowl” that said, “Feed me.” I poured a cupful of kitten chow into a cereal bowl I’d borrowed from the dining hall and placed beside a matching bowl of water, which he turned over with his paw, spilling water onto my socks.
My campers, six 9-year-old girls who arrived that morning, loved him and didn’t stop holding him until he crawled under my bed and huddled in its far corner. That afternoon, I found him on top of my sleeping bag, stretched like a teenager, owning this new life he’d found himself in. This time he had turned over not just the water dish but also his food bowl.
Already my feelings for Solomon began to shift. I’d dreamed of a hearth cat, one who loved me, who slept at my feet at night, who cleaned himself obsessively, the way cats do, gnawing dirt from between his paws, winding his tail around my leg. The cuddly ball I’d tucked beneath my shirt was more trouble than I’d expected, and as I sat on the edge of my bed, his sharp, small teeth began to chew holes in my grandmother’s quilt. But it was a summer of wanting, and I continued to believe Solomon to be the kind of cat he wasn’t turning out to be.
“Give him time,” said Vernon. “He’ll come around.”
Time was something I felt I had that summer, and I was willing to give it. Living away from home, in my own cabin, was what I needed. At camp, I formed quick friendships I felt I’d had all my life—Willie, Jane, Libby, and Dave became my new family. We explored the woods together with and without our campers. On the weekends when the children went home, we rock-hopped the river, picnicked on the ball field, sneaked in six-packs of beer and sometimes drank so much we struggled in to breakfast on Sunday mornings.
Bill befriended everybody, as though they were missing puzzle pieces that completed him. His laugh was at the edge of every conversation, and you couldn’t help but smile when he smiled, white-white teeth tucked back a little on his face, a thin mustache and rough-edged goatee framing his mouth.
And yet, there was another Bill, this one distant, outside the close circle the rest of us were forming. On Saturdays, as soon as the campers headed home, he rode off on his bike—he never said to where. Sometimes he’d return that afternoon and climb into the back of Vernon’s pickup truck to join us for a meal in town—though never for the partying afterwards—but most of the time, when we saw the bike parked in the lot by Vernon’s house, Bill had tucked himself into his cabin and did not emerge until Sunday morning, just in time for the new campers.
The third week, Bill and I were paired, with five 10-year-old boys and five 10-year-old girls in our charge. We hiked the old stagecoach trail, lunches packed. We pulled off our shoes and waded in the Haw River. We dyed t-shirts with pulp from roots and leaves and berries. We dragged our sleeping bags to the woods, slept under the stars, roasted marshmallows, and huddled together to ward off ghosts.
That night in the woods, while our campers slept, I woke in the early morning hours to find Bill sitting beneath a tree, his sleeping bag ruffled beside him, watching the rest of us sleep. When I mumbled my surprise at seeing him, he smiled. “Everybody is so peaceful,” he said. And, “I just wanted to enjoy the quiet.” He didn’t seem to want my company, so I closed my eyes and dozed until morning. When I awoke, our campfire was blazing and a pot of coffee balanced on the logs.
The last Friday night of our session, the girls huddled on their cots, brainstorming ideas for gifts they could give the boys. Stretched across a pillow, Solomon cleaned his legs, occasionally glancing over as though he were bored with us all.
“Four leaf clovers,” one girl finally suggested. “We can find them in the ball field, one for every boy and Bill.”
“You can’t just find four-leaf clovers,” I replied. “They’re surprises, gifts. You find them when you’re not looking.”
But the next morning, thirty minutes before breakfast, we raced to the dew-coated ball field, dropped to our knees, and began to search. “Got one!” “Me too!” “Me too!” came the calls until, within fifteen minutes, we had found five four leaf clovers. Even I found one that I presented to Bill when the other girls, at breakfast, gave one to each of the boys.
I can’t say that the boys held onto theirs even through that meal, but to the girls’ delight, Bill announced, “I’ll keep it forever.” After our campers had gone home, I walked with him to his cabin and there, on the sill of his window in a small plastic cup was his four-leaf clover, floating on the surface of water.
An hour later, he and his bike were gone.
* * *
Solomon explored the boundaries around the cabin—one camper found him asleep in her open suitcase when she came in from lunch one day—and then the steps outside and the crawl space beneath them, ripe with spiders, snakes and who knows what other critters burrowed under there. He emerged looking dazed, his face a splatter of webs.
As his confidence grew, he wandered farther. For days, I wouldn’t see him, and then I’d catch a glimpse of a gray figure coming out of the washhouse or squatting on a tree limb on the back path to Vernon and Grace’s house. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might be a young tom who’d eventually want to prowl, but as he grew in the early weeks of summer, I knew his mind was on something besides me.
Summer spun quickly, each week with its own surprises. Homemade ice cream, canoe trips down river, a softball tournament, camp-style Olympic games. Christmas in July was followed by a Halloween-themed week. One of the counselors, posing as Ichabod Crane, raced from the woods during the last campfire of that session, a flashlight his lantern, a stick his horse, his shirt pulled up to hide his head. The campers squealed and pretended fear.
There were meteor showers that summer, which led to nights lying in the damp grass of the ball field, looking up. They were Perseids, shooting down by the dozens over a several night period, short-lived but glorious, arcing slivers of light. After the campers snuggled to sleep in their bunks, we counselors—minus Bill—gathered in the outfield, spreading rain ponchos on the dewy grass. We munched on apples and Hershey bars “borrowed” from the kitchen, our laughter lifting and scattering into the darkness.
* * *
July heat was bearing down and only a couple of weeks of summer remained one Sunday when I walked to the dining hall. New campers would arrive after lunch.
Morning air felt hushed and heavy, the usual laugher from the kitchen absent. A group of counselors had gathered in the staff meeting room, nobody saying much. I headed in to join them when Vernon stopped me.
“It’s Bill,” he began. That’s when I realized he was not among the others. “You want to know this before you go in.” The skin around Vernon’s eyes was swollen, as though he hadn’t slept, and his khaki workshirt, always clean and freshly ironed, was wrinkled and smudged. He’d rolled his sleeves to the elbow. His hands shook slightly. “Lord, I need a cup of that coffee,” he said.
As he talked, I could feel my face tighten, tingling below the skin in that way it does when something bad has happened—a grief, a sadness, something that’s changed, something that means nothing will be the way it was again.
It was around 4 a.m., Vernon said, when one of the maintenance staff boys banged on his door. Something’s wrong with Bill, they said. He’s in the ballfield, drunk or something. He’s shouting, not making any sense.
Vernon hurried outside where, by now, Bill was lying in the middle of right field, his arms and legs spread, talking to himself.
“Come on, son, let’s go in,” Vernon said. “Let’s get you to bed.”
When Bill heard him, he shot up, then hunched on his hands and knees like an animal, “almost like he was growling,” Vernon told me. “You been drinking? You on some kind of drug?” Vernon asked Bill, but he got no answer. When Vernon approached him, Bill flew up and ran toward home plate, grabbing to the backstop as though he was going to climb it. When Vernon closed in again, Bill took off towards third, knelt, waited.
“This went on a good thirty minutes,” Vernon said, “until he finally settled down enough we got him into the rec hall, but he wasn’t making sense. Talking out of his head, going on and on about nonsense.”
“It wasn’t alcohol, though. I know when somebody’s drunk, and this wasn’t that. I don’t believe it was drugs. That boy swore he didn’t do any of that and I believe him.”
Vernon’s wife Grace called Bill’s parents. They left home immediately but it was daylight before they arrived. While they waited, Vernon brought Bill to his house where Grace made tea, sat beside him, patting his hands.
“He went crazy is all,” Vernon said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Anyway, I wanted you to know. He was a fine young man. Went crazy. It’s a shame.”
Is a fine young man, I wanted to say. Instead I mumbled something like “thanks.”
A few afternoons later, Bill’s parents arrived to pack up his cabin. Bill’s father was tall and lean like his son, dark hair graying at his temples, his eyes slate and serious. No, Bill wouldn’t be coming back. But he was doing well, they reported, was in a hospital near home, and they were watching him closely. His body chemicals were all out of whack, his father said, and doctors were forcing him to eat balanced meals. “Meat,” he added, smiling. No, they didn’t think any substances were involved. They hadn’t ruled out mental illness. Right now, they just didn’t know. Yes, we could see him, but wait until he’s stronger. With care, he’ll be ready to go back to college in fall. Still, I saw blame in Bill’s father’s face, in his haste to get out of there, away from us. We didn’t do anything but love him, I wanted to say, but I detected his parents had made up their minds that something had happened at camp to cause his episode. His mother drove the loaded car, and Bill’s dad rolled the bike to the parking lot, paused before pulling the helmet on and swinging a leg over the seat. “Never cared much for this thing,” he said.
He jump-started the engine, waved a final goodbye, and pulled out onto the highway towards town and home. I watched as he turned from gravel onto asphalt, his foot breezing the surface off the road as he slowly rode away, his shirt flapping loosely. From behind, I’d have sworn he was Bill.
* * *
It was early August, only one more week and summer would be over. A bunch of us talked about driving to see Bill once camp ended, but the closer we came to that last day, the more we talked instead about beach trips, friends, getting back home for a week or two before college classes would start. Time doesn’t always intersect the way we think it will, the way we want it to, one part of our lives extending into another. Sometimes doors close, whether we push them or whether wind or circumstance blows them closed. We’d go back to our colleges and our lives. Some of us would see each other again, would stay in touch. Others of us would say goodbye and know it would be forever.
I’d return to life as I’d known it, my idyllic summer tainted at the end. It would take years before I’d lift from the oppression of grief I’d avoided that summer. Losing Bill only fed my belief that permanence was rare, if even possible.
By the last Saturday of camp, it had been weeks since I’d seen Solomon. He was no longer eating out of his bowl in my cabin. I’d fluff his quilt at night and stand on the porch, calling, but an answer never came.
And maybe I was glad. He hadn’t turned out to be the cat I wanted him to be. I was ready to be free of him, of this place, this summer, and all reminders of what had collapsed during it.
“You might as well forget about that cat,” Vernon said. “Hawk got it. Or owl.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, looking down the long path that led through the woods to the cabins. We were standing in the parking lot. My car was packed. I’d turned in keys to my cabin and was ready to drive away. “He’s in there somewhere, doing just fine. I know he is.”
Vernon shook his head and smiled, promising to feed Solomon if he showed up when the weather turned cold. “You know Grace,” he said. “She’ll take in anything.”
Just over his shoulder, a patch of gray in the limb of a tree moved, scratching, rustling the leaves.
“Look!” I said. “Maybe?” Then as though on signal, a mockingbird lifted into sky.
I never saw Solomon again. I never saw Bill again. I’ve felt guilt over my poor responsibility for both, my care more selfish than giving, more pretentious than heart-felt. There are others from that summer I haven’t seen since—Ann, Jane, Willie. Even Vernon I saw only once more, at an early fall reunion. It’s Bill, though, that I can’t stop thinking about. As though I could have done something, as though I could do something still. I want him to be happy. I picture him with children he can watch sleeping, peace spread across their faces. I picture him thin like his father, whatever plagued him that summer as long gone as that summer. I picture him on his red and silver Honda, hair spilling from his helmet, caught in a warm June breeze. Sometimes I picture myself on the seat behind him, my arms wrapping his waist, holding tight.