In the dry, American summer of 1946 I worked as a summer camp counselor in Newark, New Jersey. My little place of work exists in arboreal quiet a few miles from the WASP-y middle-class burg whose factories’ smog settles permanently among the little wood cabins. It’s a sleepaway camp; for a week at a time hordes of New Jersey adolescents come do archery, arts and crafts, et cetera, et cetera.
Campers arrive at 1pm on the Christian sabbath, proof that for all of America’s puritan posturing it – in the end – falls obsequiously before the feet of industry, and for the hour before that the camp director, Adam Zuckerman, gathers all the counselors in the main building to rally and embolden us for the coming week. Zuckerman, the first Jewish camp director to be hired by the YMCA, hasn’t defecated since his bar mitzvah, when the full weight of being Jewish in America hit his psyche like those centurions hit Jesus.
“Listen up guys… quit talking. This week we have what you might call a ‘celebrity camper’. Philip Roth is going to be in Paul’s cabin this week.”
Back at the cabin, I finish preparing for the campers to arrive, or more specifically, their parents. I sweep the floor, bleach the beds, and put on my most heterosexual shorts. As the campers start filtering through these stolen, conquered woods I sharpen my gaze for a sign of the famous writer. Some other, gentile campers arrive, and I help them get acquainted with the cabin before I hear the door slam and there, standing four-foot-something, he is.
His skin is wrinkly and slack, his hair black, wiry, and already starting to bald. He enters, looks around the room, and rushes to put his bags on the bunk underneath the one belonging to the only blonde boy in the cabin.
“You must be Philip?”
“Yes, I am,” he says, beginning to masturbate.
His mother and father walk in after him, pretending not to see him angrily jacking off. Mrs. Roth’s air is so overbearing I almost lose my balance. Mr. Roth looks like he’d just been handed his own ass. I greet them, and, in a miniature Exodus, they are gone – quick to get away from their kid.
If I knew what was going to happen, I would have left too.
Two days later we’re on campout night, when each cabin goes a little ways from camp to sleep outside and cook food over a fire. We’re all eating our kosher hotdogs and hamburgers around the campfire when Philip announces:
“I’ve graduated from my high school seventeen times.”
He says this to the group but is looking at the blonde kid, Seymour.
“What does that even mean?” I ask.
“I like looking at the baseball players,” Philip says, having seemingly not heard me.
Seymour plays baseball; a little bit of drool oozes out of Philip’s gaping mouth. I look at Seymour again, and his jawline seems more square, his hair a little blonder. Oy gevalt.
“Did my foreskin just grow back?” Seymour exclaims with a gasp, looking at his trousers.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” But there is uncertainty in my voice. Philip’s eyes have glazed over.
Quick to change the subject, I tell everyone to throw their uneaten bits of food in the box we brought it in and start getting out the ingredients for s’mores... a little nervously.
“Philip, are you going to use your s’more to masturbate?”
Philip’s masturbation habit and high school reminiscences went quickly from shocking to quotidian, and the rest of the week passed largely without incident. Sometimes when we passed the baseball field it looked like there were an infinite number of them stretching out to the horizon, but it was probably just the fumes from the camp’s glove factory getting to me.
Finally it was Saturday, when the parents take their kids back from the delights of camp to the liver sandwiches, communal baths, and Weequahic High School of ubiquitous American experience. But first, we all gather around a big campfire for a closing ceremony. Some counselors go up to the front and start singing songs.
My cabin and I are all sitting on a log a few back from the fire. I look down it at their freckled, innocent faces and see Philip at the end, eyes closed and levitating, muttering to himself.
“Hey Philip be respectful to–”
A loud pop shatters my speech, and the counselor up front snaps a ukulele string. Gasps and screams erupt from a group of female campers a few logs behind us. I turn around and see a vagina the size of a small girl. Her name was Angela, I later learn.
“Philip, did you do that?”
He keeps muttering. Another pop, another girl turned to a vagina. Philip is still levitating; I run over to him.
“Stop that! Philip, stop that!” I cry. Pop, pop, pop. I hit him – nothing. Pop, pop. My vision narrows, flushed red. I fall to the ground, muscles seizing, mind blank.
This is Philip Roth I’m dealing with, after all.
That [says the doctor] is so fucked.