You Get What You Get
by NORA JOHNSMEYER
We're headed back up north to tackle a summer session at Luigi's, Cape Cod's original brick oven pizza and seafood tavern.

We sign the boys up for day camp. Camp Wampanoag, it's called, and it's a little out there for my taste, but it's right next door to the restaurant and Vinny arranges this deal where we can have all three kids attend for the price of two as long as we cater the Courage, Hope, Good Spirit, and Peace Day picnic next week. Just so we're all on the same page, we meet with the camp director, Beverly.

First thing, Beverly asks, "Could you take off your watch?"

I'm not typically one to question authority, and Beverly is definitively marked as the boss by the wide-brimmed sunbonnet she wears, but this seems a little bizarre.

"How come?" I ask.

"The Wampanoags believed," she says, "that the time it takes to learn something, is the time it takes."

"Hmm," Vinny says, pocketing his watch.

"We don't run on a schedule here," Beverly says. "When your child feels he has spent enough time in the pool, or at kickball, or painting, he is free to move on to another activity of his choice. We don't allow clocks on campus."

If you ask me, Beverly is a crazy lady, and Camp Wampanoag is just a big 'fuck you' to children under the age of eight everywhere who depend on snack at three and a story at eight. But no one asks me.

"Sounds liberating," Vinny says, stroking the pale band of skin at his wrist. He spent yesterday planting hydrangeas in front of Luigi's.

"You're going to get a farmer's tan," I told him, grimacing.

"Won't be the first time," he said.

"We could hire a gardener," I said.

"I don't think planting a few bushes is beneath me," he said.

"Of course not," I said. "I didn't mean that. The flowers smell delicious."

"We group the children by mental age, rather than physical age," Beverly says. "They usually correspond, but more often than you might guess, they don't. I'm going to place Silas in the Green Seahorses, and Alex in the Purple Quahogs, and Ansel in the Dolphins. We'll see how that goes and then make any necessary adjustments."

"I like that," Vinny says, "Sea creatures."

I roll my eyes. Now it's our turn to get Beverly up to speed.

"So you're originally from the Cape?" she asks.

"Born and raised," Vinny says. "Bought Luigi's six years back. Adopted the boys 'bout…two years ago? That right, Nance?"

"Twenty months," I say. "I'm actually from Rhode Island, but I've always summered on the Cape. I moved here after Vinny and I were married four years ago."

"And what made you relocate?" Beverly asks. Vinny chuckles.

"Here's where it gets interesting," he says bitterly. "Go ahead, Nance." He hates talking about it. He made me tell it when we enrolled the boys in school in Dale City, too.

"Silas, Alex, and Ansel all have the same mother," I say. "Different fathers."

"You'd never know it," Vinny says, "They look like clones."

"Alex has darker hair than Silas," I say. "And Ansel's skin is more of an olive tone. And he's got this really hoarse voice, it's so funny to hear this raspy sound come out of such a little boy," I say.

"Sounds like he smokes a pack a day," Vinny says.

"But you'll meet them tomorrow," I say. "Anyway, it wasn't just our three in the family. The mother also had several more children, who are still in foster care."

"Boys?" Beverly asks.

"Three more boys," I say. "One between Alex and Ansel, two older than Silas. And a baby girl."

"This woman had seven kids in 10 years," Vinny says. "Just one after another, boom boom boom."

"She was not a very…kind parent," I say. "Drugs were a major factor, I think. And different boyfriends, in and out of the house all the time. It really took a toll on the kids."

"You're too generous," Vinny says. He's bouncing his knee up and down. He crosses his arms over his chest.

"They found Silas in a closet," I say. "Horribly beaten. No diaper on Ansel. All the kids in one room, but no beds or books or toys."

Vinny swallows hard. "Silas still won't talk about it," he says.

"Still," I say, "the mother, Amber, was just devastated when they took the kids. And it did a number on them, too. They really missed her."

"Come on," Vinny says. "They were babies."

"Well they did miss her," I say. "And they missed their other siblings."

"We tried to do something about that," Vinny says. "After we had had the boys for a few months, seemed like they were adjusting better. They're my little soldiers. They love the way things are now."

"So we tried to get the other kids, too," I say.

"Seven children!" Beverly says. "That's quite a lot to take on."

"We could do it," Vinny says, biting his thumb.

"The boys were really getting on very well," I say. "Until this business started."

"When Amber heard we were trying to get the rest of her kids, she lashed out," Vinny says.

"She started calling the house a lot," I say. "She came by the restaurant a few times, tried to see the boys at school. It all made me very nervous."

"The boys, too," Vinny says. "Poor Ansel, didn't know who to call Mommy."  I bit my tongue.

"So you moved, of course," Beverly says.

"We thought it would be good for the boys to get away from here. And it was great. A great year. But we've got the restaurant up here to run, and my whole family's here. The boys love the Cape. So right now the plan is to do summers here, winters in Virginia. We stay warmer that way, anyway, right?" he asks, poking me with his elbow.

"And I didn't like to see the boys getting too capey," I say.

"What do you mean, 'capey'?" Beverly asks.

"Thank you, Beverly," Vinny says. "I don't know what she means, either. I've never heard anyone use that word but her. Did you make that up, Nance? Is that a Newport thing?"

"I just meant, well, summers here are good. For the boys." I say.

"Well," Beverly says, "we approach every unique family situation with sensitivity and an open mind."

"They're really very normal," I say. "Very sweet boys."

"I'm sure," says Beverly.

"And," Vinny says, "you shouldn't have to worry about Amber showing up. She's moved, too, from all anyone can tell."

"Still," I say, "we're being vigilant. Vinny and I are the only ones who will be picking the boys up in the afternoon."

Beverly has a poodle, Chloe, who's been sitting on my feet this whole time. Beverly whistles out of the corner of her mouth and Chloe makes her way to her feet lazily, straightening her back legs first.

"You'll just have to indicate that on the form," Beverly says, gesturing behind her to the tent that functions as the camp office. "And I can assure you that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of safety and security." She gives Chloe an Eskimo kiss. "Right, Chloe?" she asks.

"One question," I say. "How will we know when to pick the boys up? No clocks, right? Is their day just over when they feel like it's over?"

Beverly laughs and pushes her hat up on her forehead. "This summer," she says, "we'll be celebrating Camp Wampanoag's twenty-fifth anniversary. Pickup has never been an issue before!"

She hands me my watch and we make our way back down the Welcome Walk to the Jeep.

"How does she know it's been twenty-five years?" I ask.

"You're being a snob," Vinny says.

*

This is the first time I've ever noticed the Virginia in them.

Getting ready in the morning, Alex says to Silas, "I don't know where your dang socks are."

Alex really embraced Dale City. There are some latitudes I can grant him. I will buy him the black hi-tops with the flames shooting up from the soles. I will even cut the sleeves off all of his size 6x t-shirts, so they look more like muscle shirts. I'm a little shocked, though, when I find him doing push-ups in his room.

I tell Vinny when I bring them all over to the restaurant in the morning. Vinny says, "Make a muscle, Lex."

Alex flexes. Vinny whistles, impressed. It looks like there's been a golf ball implanted where Alex's tiny bicep should be.

"Did you get your tickets to the gun show?" Alex asks.

"Where did he learn that?" I ask.

"I've never seen definition like that on a little boy," Vinny says.

"Do you think that's ok?" I ask.

"Sure," Vinny says. "What was a little strange, though, was when I walked out last night and found him doing donuts with the pickup in the parking lot!"

"Stop it," I say.

Silas hands over his new stopwatch and we make the trek across the yard to Camp Wampanoag.

"I think I need a haircut," Alex says.

"I like it long like this," I say.

"I wanna shave it into a Mohawk," he says.

"Me too," Silas says. "We want Mohawks."

"No way," I say.

"Can I get a Mohawk?" Ansel asks.

"No means no," I say.

"You're not very good at this," Alex says, and what is that supposed to mean? But he slept on the floor for the first four years of his life.

"You know, Al," I say, "In my book, nobody is perfect. It's my job to decide what's best for this family. And I think no Mohawks is best. Cut me some slack, OK?"

"Yeah," he says, "but nobody reads your book." And I think, six years old!

*

We ask Vinny's dad to hold down the fort that night at Laurino's so we can go to the Courage, Hope, Good Spirit, and Peace Day picnic. Vinny's been cooking all day so we can earn our keep at Camp Wampanoag. We've got pizzas, salad, tiramisu. Naturally there is no set time for the picnic to begin, so we wander on over when the no-see-ums start to come out.

Ansel finds us first. "Hey, bud," Vinny says. "How's C,H,G,S and P day treating you?"

For an answer, Ansel grabs Vinny by the hands and swings his legs upwards, walking across Vinny's chest.

"Ansel!" a woman in a headdress calls, "You are at a ten. Let's take it down to a five."     Ansel ignores her.

"Guess I shoulda kept my apron on, huh?" Vinny says.

"Where are your sibs?" I ask.

"They're by the yurt!" Ansel says. "We're having an assembly by the yurt!"

And there it is, a tight felt circular tent, a little taste of central Asia right here at Camp Wampanoag. Over by the Welcome Walk, I see Silas frantically ringing a large bell. Children, counselors, and parents come out of the woodwork, streaming towards the yurt from all directions. Silas finishes up with the bell and runs over. He has what looks like a large key hanging from a lanyard around his neck. Chloe appears behind him, followed closely by Beverly, who has donned another floppy hat for the occasion.

"Today," she says, "Silas was chosen to be our bosun."

I'm thinking, bosun? Come on. Now Silas has the key in his mouth. "Silas," I say, "Don't chew on that. Gross."

"Nancy," Beverly says. "Let me tell you about one of the educational initiatives we're taking here at Wampanoag. We only use positive language here when talking to the children. We'll say 'stop' instead of 'no,' for example. When it comes to giving instructions, we try to avoid any negative phrasing."

"I see," I said.

"Today," Beverly says, "We ran out of juice just before snack time. But did we say, 'there will be no juice today?' We said, 'Please drink water today.'"

"I understand," I say.

"You'll never hear a lifeguard on the pool deck say, 'No running.' You will hear one say, 'Please walk.' It really sets the kids up for success."

Vinny looks like Beverly has just divulged the secret to parenting. "Try it," he says to me.
I don't think I want to try it. But then I think, they found him in a closet.

"Silas," I say, "Get that out of your mouth. Now."

"I think you're, uh, getting there," Beverly says.

We file into the yurt, which holds a surprising number of people but, not surprisingly, is oppressively hot. I don't see Alex anywhere.

"He probably doesn't feel like coming to this assembly," I say.

Vinny isn't listening; he's scanning the crowd for Alex.

"Let me rephrase that," I say, "He probably feels like doing something else."

A girl with a braid in her hair is banging on a gong to signal the audience to quiet down. I've broken a sweat. From behind me another girl kicks off the ceremony. "I call the sun from the west," she says, "Its light brings warmth for each new day."

An older boy from across the yurt says, "I call the wind from the north. Its strength carries me when I need support."

I feel like I've stepped into an episode of Captain Planet. I'm still trying to cast my gaze over the crowd of cowlicks when another boy calls the moon from the east. Just as I'm wondering if my family has been inadvertently inducted into a nature cult, Alex runs through the tent flaps. His counselor, Mary, stumbles in behind him, gesturing wildly to Beverly in sign language.

Alex crushes fingers mercilessly as he stomps over to Vinny in his hi-tops. There are at least three Yellow Starfish in hysterics by the time he is able to hold up the tiny mouse in his hand for Vinny to examine. I can't believe it when I find myself pausing to think how I can positively phrase this, but finally I come up with, "Drop it. Drop the mouse, Alex."

"He likes it!" Alex says. "Hear him squeakin'?"

Vinny drops Ansel into my lap and maneuvers around the rest of the Dolphins to stand up. "Let's go set that guy free," Vinny says. "He needs a better home than the yurt."

Wouldn't you know the mouse bites Alex.

"Ahh!" Alex, says, his pupils dilating. A wild animal, I think. A wild animal just sank his teeth into Alex's snowy skin. There is a din of shrieking as the mouse tears across the yurt, making his way through a web of untied shoelaces and wet bathing suits. The kids trying to catch the mouse collide with those fleeing it. I hold Alex close to my chest as I race into the fresh air, looking for the infirmary, which, as it turns out, is in an actual cabin.

The nurse, Ginny, is smashing at cold packs with her fist. She looks up and sees us, all five of us here now, but is unalarmed. "Activates 'em," she says, nodding down at the cold packs.

Silas picks up a can that's sitting on the counter. Sound it out, I always tell him, and now he sounds out, "Meat ten-der-i-zer." Please not another crackpot, I think. "What's it for?" he asks.

"Takes the swelling down," she says, "on the greenhead bites." Ginny looks like she's approaching eighty and wears a stick of sunscreen around her neck. "Who's the victim?" she asks.

I am still holding Alex, and as I set him down on the counter he won't unwrap his arms from around my neck. "Let go," I say, and it's breaking my heart to think that before Beverly I might have said, "Don't hold on to me."

Alex purses his lips and says, stoically, "I got bit."

"Bit!" Ginny says. "Whatever by?"

"By a lil' fieldmouse," Alex says. "I catched him over by archery."

"Caught him," I correct. "Aint" has become a staple of Alex's vocabulary. That is the trade-off, I think. They wear camo. They want guns and Mohawks. We could move up to Providence, maybe, but I don't know if Vinny could handle it.

Ansel finds a magic eight ball over by the sink. "You ask it a question," Silas explains. "Then ya shake it all up, and it gives you an answer. The real answer."

Ansel stares at Silas blankly for a second and then, in his smoker's voice, asks, "Does Alex have rabies?" He shakes the ball timidly with his baby hands and hands it to Silas to read the answer.

Silas starts to giggle. He looks at Alex. "With-out a doubt!" he says.

Alex looks at me, worried. "Nawww," he says.

"I've disinfected it," Ginny says, "And we'll keep an eye on it, but I think you're gonna make it." She looks at Alex. "I think you broke a camp rule when you put your hands on that critter," she says. "What do you think?"

"Well," says Alex, "I got all up in his personal space bubble."

"Against the rules," says Silas.

"Remember the other rule?" Ginny asks.

Alex looks at me and announces with pride, as if on stage at a talent show, "Leave nature where it lies!"

Outside, families have cleaned up at the buffet table. There aren't even any corner slices of Sicilian left. The boys are safe. I should be able to relax.

I find Mary. "How is his behavior?" I ask, "You know, otherwise?"

"Alex has a little trouble following directions," Mary says. She holds right forefinger and thumb in the shape of an L. This means "Listen," she says. She makes her forefinger and middle finger walk across her left hand. "Walk," she says. She pats the first two fingers of her left hand with the first two fingers of her right. "Sit," she says. "Thank you." she says, raising and then lowering two fingers from her lips. "And my favorite," she says, raising three fingers.

"I love you," Alex says.

"Sign language?" I ask.

"We try to sign to the kids as often as possible," Mary says. "That way, we never have to raise our voices. It's a far more gentle method than harsh words."

I want to roll my eyes at Alex, but Beverly had informed us yesterday that children under the age of seven cannot comprehend irony

"Alex," Mary says, "Why don't you tell Mom how you feel about all this."

I cringe. "She ain't my real mom," Alex says, without malice. "I mean she's my Mom, but she ain't my real mom."

Mary is sorry. "I'm sorry," she says, "I didn't –

"That's all right," I say, turning to Alex. "Well," I say, "What's up with not listening?"

This is when I don't get him. It's the little firecrackers of rage that make me think, does he remember? Or is this what I have made him?

"Well maybe," he says, fists clenched, tiny golf ball biceps contracting, "if all mah counselors didn't hate me and want me to die!"

Mary is about to explain to me, and to Alex, that she does not want him to die, but I cut that off before she can even exhale.

"Let's go," I say to Vinny, who has fed Silas and Ansel. "They're filthy. Time for a bath." Vinny brings what's left of a soggy pizza and offers it to Alex.

Instead of having a bath, though, we decide, we'll let them swim a little. "Same difference," Vinny says, yawning. He pulls the truck into the cove of the bay and we unload.

"Arch your back," I tell Silas. "Let the salt float you."

Vinny is splashing Ansel around while Alex channels hermit crabs into a hole he has dug on the flats. The tide is going out and he seems farther and farther from me as the waves recede.

The sun is behind her when she walks up from the parking lot. She's a long, drifting shadow, but I can tell it's her from the walk. And the long hair, down to her waist. My hands tense up under Silas and I upset his balance.

He sputters water and says, "I – swallowed…" He looks where I'm looking.

"Vinny," I say, "Go get Alex."

"What?" Vinny says. Vinny, I am screaming inside. Please.

I'm thrashing through the water, holding Silas, but the current has carried me down a ways from where Alex is digging.

"Is it?" Silas asks.

I'm running, but Vinny gets there first. Amber just watches from the parking lot.

"That's not Amber," Vinny says.

"Yeah it is," Alex says, but he's calm. "See, Ansel?" he says, "See how many pets I got us?"

Ansel wants to hold the crabs. Alex places one lightly in his hand.

"Is that my mom?" Silas asks, staring at Amber's shadow. He makes his hand into a visor over his eyes. "I can't tell."

"Oh," Vinny says. "That is Amber. You were right, Lex."

Alex looks up at me. "See?" he says. "I was right."

"You were right," I say. I don't know what to do.

"Can I wave?" Alex asks.

"Go ahead and wave," I say. "That's your mom." I am thinking positive.

Amber waves back from the parking lot but makes no move to come closer. Silas and Ansel wave too. Vinny starts to walk toward her and she raises her hand.

"Stop," Alex says. "That means stop." I wish I had taught him this.

Amber walks toward her station wagon. I squint, trying to see if she has any kids inside.
I look back at Alex and he is signing 'I love you' to her back. Then Silas starts in with 'Thank you.' Ansel is lost in the hermit crab hole.

Vinny scoops up Silas. "How 'bout a popsicle on the way home?" he asks.

They only have orange left in the general store. "I want red," Ansel says

"You get what you get, and you don't get upset," Alex says, a Wampanoag-ism.



Since graduating from Williams College, NORA JOHNSMEYER has been living in Boston, MA, where she works at Google. Nora loves old films, new recipes, and great books.