My camp counselor spoke of Charlie
as if he was sitting there
next to us at the bonfire,
the orange flames flickering across her face.
a teenage girl,
into a gruesome jack-o-lantern.
I was the youngest camper in 1972
at the sleepaway camp in New Hampshire
nine years old
still sucking my thumb
and clutching a worn blanket
unraveled into threads.
Her name was Summer.
Charlie gave that to her too.
Because her lemon yellow hair
was the color of the sun.
Every morning she slicked it
down with baby oil
to make it even softer.
Charlie didn't allow them to cut their hair.
She was fourteen when he found her
wandering in Golden Gate Park
from the "fascist" school her mother had sent her.
His voice was like a river,
and she floated with Charlie’s words,
drifting down to an island
filled with fragrant flowers
and swaying trees.
Summer's specialty was teaching us to swim.
As I shivered in the cold
New Hampshire lake,
I thought of the warm welcome waves
of Charlie’s words.
Her aunt in Hanover had adopted her
and Summer hated the cold of the granite state.
She wanted to return to California
but even she knew
was just a tourist attraction.
One morning she simply vanished.
her sheets holding the impression of her body
a stray blonde hair on her pillow.
The scent of baby oil was overwhelming
as Cutter bug spray.
The camp offered no explanation.
Her replacement was Cynthia,
who was thirty and had been a nurse in Nam.
Her stories were very different from Summer's.
Year later I would
learn that the Beatles song
had nothing to do with Manson.
A Helter Skelter is an amusement ride
with a slide built in a spiral
around a high tower.
Kids would climb up the tower
and slide down the outside,
the air tinkling with their laughter.
I couldn’t help thinking about Summer.
She was like a princess who found herself
inside a haunted castle.
But instead of gliding down to escape,
she remained trapped
long after everyone knew
the evil at 10050 Cielo Drive.
In England I lost my memory for two weeks.
Encephalitis, the doctors said but there were no mosquitos in
My head felt like a rotten peach,
fuzzy, rank and rotting,
when the nurse kept asking my name.
My past was a faint penciled word that I had half erased
and no matter how hard I tried
the smudges remained.
Never had the present seemed so precise.
I could see every loose thread in my blanket,
blackheads in the young doctor’s chin,
the curdling milk,
rising like polluted clouds in the tea
the yellow veins in the spider plant,
dying by the window.
The cheap nylon sheets itched my bare
legs and shoulders.
In America I would have smooth cool cotton sheets.
Fiona was in the bed next to mine.
with an enormous pumpkin head
and dank black hair clumped
like abandoned plots of soil.
The hospital needed brain damaged people
Her arms were usually bruised purple,
donating blood the nurses said,
which didn’t explain the zig-zag crosses on her face,
like a cruel game of Tic Tac Toe.
Her Raggedy Ann doll was at least four feet tall.
Fiona dragged it everywhere,
the doll’s face and hair as filthy as her own.
One day the nurses had enough.
Fiona was twenty-five after all, too old.
“Out with Annie,” the head nurse announced,
grabbing so suddenly from Fiona’s embrace
that even my blanket seemed to shiver in shock.
Someone must have thought it would have been like
taking a bottle from a toddler.
Cruel, but necessary.
They didn’t expect her to be so wild.
flinging her hot tea in faces
Hurling the china cup
right through the window.
Finally I was awake,
the past rushing in like a tornado.
Where the hell was I?
Where was Jimmy with my pint?
And what happened to my cigarettes?
Fiona sank down on the floor,
licking her bloody knuckles with a tiny pink tongue.
I covered my head with my blanket,
closed my eyes,
Begging for oblivion again.
Yet memory nudged me too hard,
clutching with moist hands,
a pushy dancer partner
that would never let go.