Tyler turned six shortly before his mother read an article about the benefits of camping. She pressured her husband to borrow $300 from his parents to buy a faded 1968 PleasureMate 12-foot popup camper from a classified ad. The camper’s body was white-stained-yellow and mildew was splattered over the canvas. It balanced on two narrow center wheels and a jack attached to the hitch. Two bunks extended over the ground on either side.
The day they brought the camper home, Tyler and his father set it up and tested the mattresses. When they rested on the bunk that had no jack beneath it, the camper seesawed and dipped on their side, the wheels serving as a fulcrum. His father crawled to the other side to balance the structure.
“You did this,” Tyler’s father said. “Getting too big and strong.” Tyler growled and showed his teeth and father recoiled in mock fear.
Tyler’s mother was standing outside.
“Why’d you do that? Is he okay?” she said to the father when they left the camper.
“It’s like a teeter-totter,” Tyler responded.
“Of course he’s fine,” said his father. He glanced at the boy’s mother and went inside the house.
The night before the trip, Tyler’s father came home late and was too tired to play. He patted Tyler on the head, offered a tight smile to the mother, and descended into the basement. The television bleated through the floorboards. Tyler was not allowed to watch television with his father and, instead, sat at the top of the stairs until his mother ordered him to go to his room.
The trip happened during a brief Indian summer in early October over Columbus Day weekend. Bare trees stretched their emaciated limbs over a nearly empty state park. When they arrived, Tyler’s father needed several attempts to back the camper into its spot. He guided his father as his mother sat on a graying picnic bench.
Tyler and his father cranked the rusty handle until the camper rose on unsteady metal limbs and yanked the wooden slats on either end until the bunks extended over the ground. The boy’s father set up an awning over the entrance. His mother warned Tyler to be careful: the aluminum poles that supported the awning were bent and might break and cut if they were jostled.
They made dinner that night over the fire. His father started it after failing twice and refusing the mother’s help. During dinner, Tyler sat between his parents. They ate in near silence, although Tyler’s mother often commented on the crisp air and sharp stars and how good it was to be together as a family. Tyler sat and looked at the ground and the way his breath formed an insubstantial vapor. When came time to sleep, his mother went into the camper to change and instructed his father to clean up.
They went to bed soon after. Tyler slept with his mother and relaxed into her warmth. His father slept on the opposite side, above the jack, so as to keep the balance. Near midnight, there was a commotion outside — a shuffling and snuffling and tearing, the sound of ripping and chewing.
“Did you leave food out?” his mother hissed.
“I — you asked me to come in and help you make the beds,” the boy’s father whispered.
“You’re always doing this—”
“—what do you mean, always?”
They lay still in the darkness and listened to the snapping and growling as it approached the camper.
“It’s a bear,” said his mother.
“You don’t know that,” the boy’s father said.
Tyler shrank into his mother. He felt her breath, short and fast. The snuffling rattled the door and the camper shook.
“Do something,” she whispered.
Tyler’s father rolled out of bed and toward the door but his weight put the camper out of balance. The camper teetered, dropped on Tyler and his mother’s side, and slammed into the ground. His father balanced in the center of the camper, elevated above the tires, a crooked shadow. The awning groaned. They heard a snap and a muffled thump as it collapsed on the animal. One of the sharp poles tore a hole in the canvas. The boy’s mother shrieked. Through the gash, Tyler saw the creature’s panicked eyes. The animal spun and disappeared into the darkness.
His mother’s voice filled the camper: “What are you doing? Don’t you ever think?”
The boy saw his father’s shadow narrow and tighten. “Screw you,” he said. Tyler flinched. His father flung open the aluminum door and shoved the awning aside. He stumbled down and slammed the door behind him. The sound was thin and hollow.
The footsteps faded and the boy heard the slam of a car door.
Tyler felt his mother trembling. He climbed over her and used his small hands to pull himself toward the opposite bunk. It was not until he reached the far side — farther away from his mother than his father was because he was much smaller than his father — that the camper righted itself.
Tyler waited for his father to return but he remained in the car. His mother used a flashlight and duct tape to seal the gash. When she called for the boy, he did not respond. He kicked his father’s blankets off, pressed his cold body against the camper’s thin walls and cried.
They returned on Columbus Day. That night, when he was falling asleep, Tyler heard his parents’ loud voices. He closed his eyes to the spinning darkness and clung to his bed. The next day was a school day. His mother told him to get out of bed. He refused. His father asked him to get ready and Tyler turned away. When they asked him why he would not listen, he could not and would not explain.
Mark Jedrzejczyk is a full-time guidance counselor, a part-time liberal arts professor, and — due to his young children — never able to sleep. He writes in Kenosha, WI.