Tall Timber Tales|
A Boy Called Jacob
an excerpt from a novel-in-progress
by Peter Berkrot
April 6, 2006
The last days of Woody Oaks. The last summer. Twelve years. The last chance to dress up for the carnival, fend off sloppy kisses from Geisha, the yellow German Shepherd who owned the camp, to suck in the warm breath of DDT as the Fog Man graced them with his clouds and thrum. Could Jacob have known then that he would never see this place again except in dream? Never return to the landscape of earliest memory, that the crew-cut, warm, cricket times of forever would never be re-visited as he packed and felt the weighty pull of Labor Day, Brooklyn pavement and schoolyard fights? Hard to say.
But Jacob would remember the summer itself because it was his final, excruciating chance to win a Kovod Award. Kovod was the Hebrew word for “honor.” And every week from the dawn of day-camp time, some lucky kid was called up and awarded at the Friday afternoon prayer services, the not-so-solemn ritual which signaled the end of the week and the beginning of the waiting. When the Friday services ended, it was time for the fathers to come back. They were gone, of course for the week. Every Monday morning at six o’clock, the mass-exodus of the fathers would begin as they donned the neckties hidden amongst the golf clothes and bathing suits, retrieved scuffed attaché cases smelling of weekend mothballs and began the two hour trek back to the city and their jobs.
Jacob never even thought about his father being gone during the week, never wondered if he was lonely in the big Brooklyn apartment all by himself or imagined him going out to a movie or a bar for a drink on a hot July Wednesday as the tar cracked from the heat and the kids left behind played touch football or stick ball or pitch the penny against the buildings. He never thought about Ben sitting on the phone in his air conditioned Long Island office selling corrugated boxes and light bulbs and toilet brushes by the thousands to other fathers whose son’s were away at camp, playing kickball and tetherball, scratching poison ivy, swimming after lunch and eating Fudge-icles.
Jacob’s world existed only in flashes of color, pops of light and sound and bursts of heartbreaking humiliation or momentary relief. His father simply didn’t exist. But the moment that Sabbath Services ended, the Kovod Award was bestowed and “Day is Done” sung, Jacob, as if awakening from a coma, suddenly remembered his daddy and would tear off across the center lawn, past the bungalows to the stairs which took him down to the road, the only road into camp and there he waited. Sometimes it was minutes, sometimes for an hour. One awful afternoon, Jacob sat for nearly two hours and then gave up, forlorn and furious, to the comfort of a Ring Ding only to have Ben arrive ten minutes later. That was the day Ben showed up with a new brown Cadillac. All the other families gathered around to “OOOOH” at the new car and then gasped and laughed as Ben opened the door and the sound of an air raid siren began. No one had ever heard an alarm on a car before and they were all were properly impressed, most of all Jacob, who was allowed to use the little key which turned a tiny switch near the gas tank that stopped the infernal, wondrous noise.
By then, all thoughts about Daddy being late and of Lisa Rose, that snot who wasn’t even nice, winning this week’s Kovod Award, had vanished. Daddy was home. And his new car made noise.
But by dinnertime, the disappointment returned, warm and fresh like a side dish, when the family sat down to the barbecued hamburgers and home-made french fries and Jacob had to look at Barry’s award, won a summer ago, displayed on the porch across from where he sat. It was a simple plaque really, unpainted plywood shaped like a family crest and painted in white Calligraphy with the year, the winner’s name and the words Kovod Society above. This was last year’s model and the year before’s which went as far back as Jacob could remember. This year they got a little fancier took more time so the thing itself was white and the words were a limey, olive green.
It was an insignificant thing to most people, or so it seemed, mostly because there was no real Kovod Society. That is they didn’t do anything or meet or go anywhere. They had nothing in common. Some members were actually adults now; one was even dead, having drowned the year before Jacob’s family started coming here. And you didn’t have to do anything to get in. Not a good deed or a kind gesture or a remarkable skill. There was never an announcement of any kind that proceeded the presentation. In honor of this that or the other thing. It was nothing more than popularity contest really. And that’s why Jacob really wanted one.
What made Jacob completely nuts was that no one, Barry included seemed to care one bit about winning. In fact, there was often a subtle embarrassment as the chosen one rose to the applause of the crowd and made his or her way through the rows of benches set up outside the casino for the afternoon prayers and announcements.
But Jacob wanted one, prayed for one. Barry knew this and so he made a point of making sure his own award was properly displayed directly across from Jacob’s dinner plate. Jacob didn’t eat much on Fridays.
During this, Jacob’s last summer at Woody Oaks, his name actually came up twice during the selection. Actually, this was the one thing that the winners had in common. There was a regular Thursday afternoon meeting up at the casino of the Kovod Society. And there, amongst that select group of small children and young teenagers, they nominated and voted for the newest inductee. As the summer dragged on and the shadows lengthened, the membership grew larger and larger until by the end of his twelfth year, when he was the in the oldest group, The Mets, Jacob was the only one of his peers not at the Thursday meeting. He played horseshoes with his remaining counselor (the other had won three years back and was also at the meeting) and tetherball and Ghost. Mostly though, he sighed. And imagined that this week, they would have to vote for him.
But they didn’t. It went to someone younger one week, a popular nine year old, then to a girl, then another girl, then one of the youngest kids, a six year old member of The Apple Pies, who had a slight limp and a scar on his leg from a car accident when he was a baby. And on the last Friday of the last summer of Jacob Aaron Becker’s life at Woody Oaks Day Camp and Bungalow Colony, Barry turned to him and whispered that he was in. That they finally voted for him. That his name had come up all summer because all of his few friends were now in it but no one wanted him at the meetings. Now that the summer was over, though and there would never be another meeting of the Kovod Society, at least not in his lifetime, they had finally allowed him entrance.
Jacob felt like he was going to cry, cursing the bittersweet victory, knowing that they had denied him the only real honor of the honor society, the opportunity to vote for the next winner. At the same time, his heart pounded and all the spit in his mouth dried up and he could hardly hear or speak the prayers during Sabbath Services.
Then the time came. The last day of camp. The last Kovod Award. And Jacob imagined what it was finally going to feel like to rise to applause, the applause of his peers and the only slightly less judgmental parents of his peers. He wondered if he should say anything or take a bow (maybe that would get a laugh) or shake Uncle Mel’s hand. He couldn’t remember. Was he supposed to shake hands or would that be faggy? And if he didn’t would Uncle Mel be offended? He drifted into the tunnelvision of panic, losing all peripheral vision. He knew this was going to happen soon and end quickly and he wanted to get it right. And just as he had begun to breathe again, to see on both sides, the announcement came and he began to rise.
And so did Steven Meyer, the winner.
Barry was smiling.
Article © 2006, Peter Berkrot
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