“The atmosphere had been transformed into something carefree and familiar”: An Excerpt

by DRM

This is excerpted from a longer project that I am working on. The scene takes place in the early Fall of 1921. The destination is a summer camp in Mountain View, New Jersey.

The morning was light and unseasonably warm. Selma stood in the cool shadow of the entrance tunnel. The Pennsylvania Station rose up to a great glass canopy. Light streamed down to the granite floors.

She was early. She had bargained with Rose to take the last few of her chores and hurried out of the building before her mother came back from the morning shopping. “Tell Mamma I needed to be in at the catalog company today to help them with the new pages,” Selma had told Rose.

Patty had told her to dress for walking. Selma wore a pair of sturdy leather shoes and a dress made of light wool that hung close to her slim frame. She carried a bag made with a velvet remnant, a curtain cord spliced together around the neck.

People walked by with a sort of languid purpose. Sunday was generally respected as a day of rest, even among Jewish firms that observed the sabbath. The catalog company kept a light schedule on Sunday: there was no Postal delivery, no catalogs to ship out or new orders to open, letters of credit to process. Some of the workers would be called in to work on new copy for the pages, or to fine-tune designs and sketch illustrations, but the pace of that work was uneven and Fedelstein seemed to prefer a long, uneventful day at the business when he could pace from corner to corner of the two floors as if he were taking an inventory owhat was possible and what had passed.

Selma watched for Patty. She would enter at the north-east tunnel, she had said, but in walking up the steps from the subway and turning her head this way and that to watch the people that passed by, Selma had lost her sense of direction and wasn’t certain that she was facing in the right direction. She felt shy to ask and stood for a few moments in each direction, turning in a circle like a toy dancer, worried that she would miss Patty and be left behind on the excursion.

Patty lived with a group of girls in a new tenement on Eighth Avenue, off 38th Street. She’d invited Selma to her apartment before, but Selma had been reluctant to go, since she didn’t know the girl well and was a little put off by the way she told stories about the young mothers and abandoned children who lived in the Catholic Mission on Patty’s block. She always had a tender story about one of the children, as if she was helping them somehow by talking about their misfortune. She got weepy when she talked about the women who ran the mission, Sisters she called them. She’s not even Catholic, Selma thought, and the women who fell on hard circumstances were usually poor charity cases with no prospects and little self-discipline. Feeling sad for them wasn’t a virtuous act, it was silly, she thought.

Patty came down the tunnel with a gay group of girls, all chattering and dressed in light dresses or pantaloons and wearing a kind of leather shoe that Selma had seen in the shops. They were lit up by the glow from the street and looked ruddy, blonder and hearty. Selma cataloged their dress, their shoes, the thickness of their stockings, the way that they did their hair: she would remember the style, watch how they acted during the day, and take what would work, that would strike away the feeling she had now, standing against the wall, that she would be noticed only because she wouldn’t fit in, because she wasn’t as pretty, because she looked different.

“You’re here!” Patty cried, skipping up to Selma and slipping her arm around her waist. “Oh good! You’ll have so much fun. I’m so happy.”

They went deeper into the station. Patty leaned her head into Selma. “You’ll be a little hot, I think, but we’ll sort that out when we get there. There are loads of things at the camp that we can get for you. You’ll see.”

The trip to Mountain View was a flurry of unfamiliar sights for Selma, and by the time the train bumped to a stop at the station, she felt a little tired and distant. Patty insisted that Selma sit by the window and pointed out to her the little villages and sprawling farms they passed, describing the changes that came with each turn of the season. The girls had passed around sandwiches and sipped from a bottle of strong beer, giggling at the light brown mustaches that lingered on their lips, gasping at the thick effervescence that filled their cheeks when they washed the beer back and forth in their mouths.

The men had gone out the night before to camp under the stars, Patty said. They would have arranged for food and refreshments by the lake. The camp was quiet this late in the season, the summer heat having passed, but the lake was shallow and the water still warm enough to splash and play in.

“We’ll have a great old time, you’ll see,” Patty said.

From the station, they had to hike a mile or so along a packed dirt road that curled up a small hill and dipped down into a thick wood. The girls tread like mountain goats to save their shoes from the dusty road. Selma offered to carry the bag of provisions, trodding firmly on her thick leather soles. The gesture made her feel useful and the girls commented on her thoughtfulness. When they crested the hill, they could see thin curls of grey smoke against the light blue of the sky. Their spirits raised.

As they closed on the camp, one of the girls started to sing and the others joined in, their voices sending signal that the girls, in force, were about to arrive.

The heavenly blisses
of his kisses
Fill me with ecstasy,
He’s sweet just like chocolate candy
And just like honey from the bee.

Their song was returned by thin howls that sounded like a pack of stray dogs worrying at a defiant tomcat, and then a deep voice rose up clear.

“Get ready boys. Here come the vamps!”

The girls laughed and broke out into a skip-run up the rise in the road, calling out “Hello!” and “Watch yourself now, buster!”

Selma lagged a little behind with the oversized food bag, picking up her step. The atmosphere had transformed into something carefree and familiar, as if a stream of seltzer had been injected into their midst, catching them each in tiny nitrogen bubbles and spinning them in the air.

The girls had come to a stop at the edge of the clearing, where the slope turned grassy and wound down to the thin neck of the lake that stretched out beyond. Some of the girls had fallen to the grass, and others stood fanning themselves, faces red with exertion, panting in an overwrought way, as if they were overweary and worn. Patty stood in the center, her arms extended to her side with palms up, her face turned to the blue sky. Her chest is so full, her legs so slender and long, Selma thought as her friend held the pose and began to spin round, calling out, “At last, at last!” and two of the boys, stripped down to their shirts and with their pants rolled up, cried, “She’s going to tumble!,” as they raced to her, catching her wrist and wrapping their arms around her back as she fell limply to the ground, her call turning into a lilting laugh, her eyes squeezed closed, her arms clutching tight in their grasp, her heels planted in the ground, her calves bare and shining in the late morning sun