mertes

Camp Whiskey

Corey Mertes

Today the testing resumed. Once again, I am very nervous.
            As usual, the proctors do not tell us what it takes to pass the examinations. We know only that we are being graded. Rumors persist that the camp is rigged with hidden cameras and one-way mirrors. On any given day, the testing may be pathologically complex or numbingly routine. Izzy, the Grand Prefect, can be a whimsical sadist.
            Everyone had two days off, but today Humphries, that persnickety old clown, marched into Tent 5 at dawn wearing a blazer, a bow tie, big floppy red shoes (as if to highlight his clownishness), and nothing else, and jolted us awake by clanging an enormous cowbell. Ashfaq rushed him but was subdued by the guards and spent the rest of the day in Long Line.
            Following Beat Down and Hose Off we were all directed to Testing Room D for a fresh battery of written examinations. Suzette was there, in the back row. I sat adjacent, and whenever the proctor turned his back, she made the funny face that always gets me laughing, bugging out her eyes like Harpo Marx. Passages of dense text—It is evident that to the synthesis of cause and effect belongs a dignity, which is utterly wanting in any empirical synthesis—were followed by a series of impenetrable questions: To whom is the dignity effected? Can a dynamical synthesis be added? Defend your answers. In the third hour: The ultimate effect of a bounty on the exportation of corn is not to raise or lower the price in the home market and The constant characters which appear in the several varieties of a group of plants may be obtained according to the laws of combination became too overwhelming, and I pulled the big red lever to initiate my time-out. Talk at the Slaking Trough waxed nostalgic, how the tests were so much less demanding when we were first brought to Camp Whiskey; in my case—how many years ago was it?—carted off while trudging alone one night on the avenue following another ungratifying speed dating event, too preoccupied with self-pity to recognize the nefarious intent of the two approaching forms.
            Were the tests really simpler then or do the green pills, the ones they placate us with in the beginning, distort our recollections? Often I would finish the exams early back then and stare dreamily out the window at the manicured grounds. I remember Suzette, who is much younger than I am, startling me during one dream by bouncing a paper wad off my cheek. When I turned to retaliate with the nub of my eraser, the coquettishness of her grin caught me off guard, and I held my shot. In those days, time passed fluidly, like hourglass sand. Only much later did I grow weary of my stay and come to associate it, however obliquely, with a fragmented self-image, with layers of camouflaged insecurity. Before, in that previous life, I’d been rudderless, in self-exile, seeking in others the feelings I’d been unable to express on my own. How exactly that condition became connected with, or would be corrected by my term here I could not say. But connected it was, I knew, if only by wisps and ladders, and for months after the proctors had withdrawn my allotment of pills the key to getting by was in not letting anyone, myself least of all, suspect the fear and anxiety by which I’d been (and continue to be) periodically consumed.
            Today, as in old times, I daydreamed after break, and, remembering the time—so long ago now, it seems—that Suzette and I kissed in the wings of the camp’s little theater, turned in her direction again and smiled, minutes later smiling again after the proctor called time, believing I had answered more questions correctly than usual. Although I know we both wanted to, Suzette and I did not speak to each other at Buzz Hour. A rumor has spread that relations with the opposite sex are being temporarily monitored and marked against our Running Score.
            Instead, I introduced myself to the newest contestant (inmate? student? member? spy?), who arrived recently by train, Pietr Moss. He seldom talks, and when he does he interjects inappropriate words and phrases seemingly at random. Anabolic. Fee simple. Flavonoid. Golan and Globus. Izzy himself handed Pietr his first supply of green pills, in a velvet pouch on the station platform. Like all new contestants, he is awarded more Sovereign Days than the others. They are merciful to the newcomers and the ones here the longest, but those in the middle like me are lucky to receive any breaks at all.
            “You know what tomorrow is?” I asked him, after breaking the ice.
            “No. Uh-uh.”
            “Tomorrow is Hog Roll.”
            As with every test, the rules of Hog Roll are vague. There’s a forty-by-forty-foot mud pit. A wide-mouthed aluminum chute overhang dispensing hoards of cash, a wind machine, barbed wire, a rotating mill. When Izzy’s voice over the intercom says Go, we climb in and wade after the money like zombies. Once I proudly emerged with the most in total denomination but was awarded only an average score, a typical Camp Whiskey burlesque. But thank God my score was average! Every month our totals on the previous month’s tests are broadcast for a day on the Big Board. Running Scores are not revealed, and in fact are considered private matters we are free to calculate on our own but strictly prohibited from discussing. Although the tallies on the Big Board seem to bear little or no relationship to our performance on the tests to which they purport to correspond, still it’s a relief and a source of delight when high numbers appear next to our names for everyone to witness. We are also aware that recipients of low marks may be subjected to any of several unpleasant consequences, each assigned by the proctors its own incongruous name: Kill Switch, Tikka Dot, or, in rare instances, Geographical Tongue, the temporary withholding of food. Low scorers, fearing the worst, will sometimes flee before the consequences are administered, taking their chances in the Misty Minefield.
            Suzette and I both had to separately endure a stint of Geographical Tongue. It is generally short-lived, more of a scare than a meaningful deprivation. Even so, the scare is real. We met through the bamboo bars during my confinement. She passed me handfuls of trail mix every day for a week, and whispered words of comfort. Later I had the opportunity to return the favor. We are allowed—encouraged by Izzy, in fact—to share our rations with those on Geographical Tongue.
            Soon after that, I encountered her again, in a way. At least I’m pretty sure I did. It was during a test that required earphones and listening to a string of garbled female voices tell stories of personal trauma from their pasts. Things like: I was pulled over in central Arkansas, the policeman said for speeding. I wasn’t speeding. When he asked me to sit in the backseat of his squad car I knew something was terribly wrong. Or: We heard a gunshot and my sister grabbed me. Later we learned my stepfather killed my stepbrother that night. No one was ever arrested.
            After each we were asked to rate on a scale of one to ten our opinion of whether we could ever fall in love with that woman, a ten indicating yes, we were certain that we could under the right circumstances. I gave no one more than a four except the woman I believe was Suzette, who got a nine. Everyone’s ratings appeared on a graph on the Big Board a week later with the men’s names on the bottom axis and the women’s up the side, but in all cases the numbers were a point or two lower than when we assigned them on the day of the tests, and no one knew why.
            Navajo Code Talker, the test was called. The story Suzette related (if it was Suzette) was about her father, a captain in the Marines, and how he wanted a boy but gave up after Suzette, his fifth daughter, was born. Once when she was thirteen he descended the bleachers and pulled her roughly by the arm from first base in a softball game for failing to advance on a wild pitch. Sitting tight-lipped in the corner of the couch at home, she fought back tears of embarrassment and rage as he read aloud to her the provisions on advancement in the Official Rules of Baseball.
            The men also made anonymous recordings relating life-altering traumas—in my case, the two divorces, the unwarranted suspension of my law license for perceived ethical transgressions—presumably to be played in isolation for select women.
            Other tests: One in which the taker is seated alone in a white room at a mammoth oak desk. Three horizontal slits midway up each wall are the room’s only adornment. On the desk sits an outbox labeled Your Responses. Next to it, a stack of white paper and a ballpoint pen. There is also a glass tumbler and, oddly, a thin pipe rising from the floor to a foot above the desktop with a pair of spigots protruding from it, one of which dispenses bourbon, the other rye. The voiced instructions from Izzy are minimal: Respond timely and as appropriate. Then in rapid succession envelopes eject through the slits at exactly the speed and arc necessary to land on the edge of the desk and slide to a stop in front of you. You open them—quickly, because it’s clear you are being timed (you can’t see a clock, but a loud ticking sound begins with the first envelope) although it isn’t clear whether responding swiftly results in the best score or whether more value is placed on the quality of your answers. Many of the envelopes contain advertisements; others are invitations to distant affairs. Some are absurdly vicious threats veiled in civility: Please do not make us cut off your legs. Thank you. The test, which may go on for hours, is called Vuvuzela.
            Another test is called Wait Time. Always on Mondays. Not dangerous like Whistleblow or Freak Flag. You are ushered by a silent proctor into an oblong room decorated like a model 1950s kitchen and living area, except that some items, like a Rubik’s Cube and a gigantic plasma TV, are out of place for the period. The only books are a full set of Reader’s Digest Select Editions. A working Smith Corona dominates a small table, and there’s a wide maple cabinet full of scotch. The test runs all day and night. You get bored, so you read or watch TV and maybe pour yourself a little drink, and then every couple hours or so, to your relief, someone knocks on the door. You’ve never seen them before. Sometimes three or four of them arrive together, but they all do the same thing when you invite them in. They survey the room, compliment the decor, and then strike up a conversation with you or one of their party about the volumes of Reader’s Digest on the shelves. You assume they must be shills—contestants from one of the tents on the other side of camp posing as guests to entice you into participating in this strange game. So you play along for twenty or thirty minutes, make small talk, but always, always when you’ve had enough and are about to step outside the test, or game, or whatever it is, and ask them a real question about what the hell is going on, they make an excuse and abruptly depart. And suddenly you’re alone again. You’re left to read or play with yourself or type God knows what on the typewriter, until that same scenario repeats later, and two or three more times after that (by which time you’re often quite sleepy and drunk) until bed.
            Once it was Suzette at the door. When she saw me she blanched, apparently realizing she’d gone to the wrong site. Before I could say a word, she’d fled; and though I wanted to run after her I didn’t know if it would violate the rules, so I stood there, a lonely, static observer. By the time I’d decided to hell with it, let my scores suffer, it was too late. She was almost out of sight, scuffling around the warehouse where the test props and whiskey are stored.
            Over time, the testing affects some contestants in debilitating ways. Olayinka used to make beads and play the balafon but is now a recluse who believes in her own immortality. On Cruise Days she repeats the same action eight, nine, sometimes ten hours in a row, breaking only for lunch. She moves coins from one to another of the many handmade silver cups she brought with her from her remote village in Burkina Faso.
            “Working hard or hardly working?” I would say to her in jest in her free-spirited days. When I say it lately she just keeps at her task and grumbles something in her native tongue.
            There’s an Australian woman with a traumatic brain injury at Camp Whiskey. Two years of evaluations have done little to improve her condition. Recently, she’s begun to show up in the crow’s nest at Weight Time, where, while the rest of us work out, she recounts through a megaphone the origins of her multiple personae: Beatrice hated bugs. Anna was an innocent schoolgirl who played alto sax and swam in the nude. The proctors leave her alone. Her behavior, although unusual, violates no regulations. The rest of us try to ignore her, except for a young doctor from Argentina, who sits in the sand and takes notes.
            Another contestant, Deepak, appeared perfectly sane and happy at the beginning, but now listens to political commentary on the radio all day.
            And me? I’m holding up okay. They offer classes and I’m taking one called How to Bartend, hoping when I get out it will help me get back on my feet again. Last week I invented a new drink with rye called a Paranoia.
            When will the testing end? Camp Whiskey is not a prison, where when you arrive all you want is out, until you eventually come to accept the rhythms of your confinement. Here, the reverse is true. Many of the tests are initially instructive, and the curiosity you feel over how they might be scored is exhilarating. Everyone accepts things as they are and considers running away only when the green pills are phased out of their regimens.
            Even then, our diversions sustain us. Movies, for example. They let us watch a lot of movies. Disney movies, documentaries. Wes Anderson. Luis Buñuel. We have other amusements too. Suzette is here, after all. She played Gonzalo in the production we put on of The Tempest. A good-hearted adviser to the King of Naples, Gonzalo lands with other noblemen on Prospero’s island during a storm and tries to lighten the mood by noting the island’s beauty and the miraculous reconciliation of the lords. I played the monster Caliban, whom Gonzalo alone is able to see as more than just a wild and demonic beast. We performed it to a small, appreciative crowd of hooting and whistling contestants. Even Izzy was there, banging on a drum.
            Prospero was played by an old man named Lakshman. You don’t have to be old to be let go, but Lakshman was in his eighties upon his release, and people said his Running Score was exceptionally high. How high exactly, it’s impossible to say. The punishment for Score Revelation is most severe. At least two contestants who confessed their Running Score were said to have been murdered in cold blood by the proctors—Gondorf, known for his complaints about the food; and the loquacious one they called the Little Prince. Both disemboweled, according to the stories. You can never know for sure.
            Lakshman himself kept quiet. But near the end he did suggest to his lady friend, Ling Wu, that his departure was imminent. He expressed no joy over it. Interest, yes, in light of the tantalizing way news of his pending release was leaked to him—one word at a time in anonymous envelopes, delivered every month over a period of years. The means of informing dischargees of their forthcoming release is one of the camp’s enduring oddities. Some of those who bunked with Artie Klatz testify to the way he received the news. YOU’RE GOING HOME, ARTIE! three proctors shouted again and again as they burst into Tent 3 in the middle of the night. Dressed like EMTs, they banged on engine parts with pipes and hammers, waking everyone up before escorting Artie out in his underwear, never to be seen again.
            A rumor goes around, surfacing occasionally before disappearing for months, that before they were released some of the departed received messages over the intercom during solitary exams: reminders that they have the power to leave whenever they want regardless of their scores, that there are no fences. While the truth of those stories has never been verified, the information itself is common knowledge: there are no fences at Camp Whiskey. Besides the diversions, only the Misty Minefield and the misanthropic creatures said to reside there prevent a mass exodus of those who’ve been weaned off the green pills.
            Count me among those who stay—hopeful and afraid of putting the fragile pieces of my life in order. Another play—The Crucible!—has been scheduled for spring. Suzette is expected to participate. And I’m imagining another cast party like the one they allowed us after The Tempest that turned so memorably wild. I would like that very much, to go wild again. To play opposite Suzette again. To hear the words whispered again from someone I might love: You are not a monster.

Corey Mertes is a writer living in North Kansas City, Missouri. His stories have appeared in many journals, including 2 Bridges Review, Green Briar Review, Midwestern Gothic, Poydras Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, The Prague Revue, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Hawaii Review.

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