The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 10
Welcome back to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week, we are excited to share 'Benson Beach RV Park' by Elizabeth Del Conte. This short story had our fiction staff immersed in the mischievousness of summertime and inspired youthful fun from the ensuing chaos. We hope you enjoy!
Elizabeth Del Conte teaches English in Syracuse, New York, and has twice attended the Kenyon Review Writing Workshop. Del Conte's fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the raffish, Before After/Godwink, Cagibi, South 85, North Dakota Quarterly, and Indolent Books’ “What Rough Beast” series.
Benson Beach RV Park
Mitsy Colvin could date the pranks back to the first week of July. To the morning of the 4th to be exact, when the Benson Beach RV Park’s cache of fireworks disappeared. She’d expected her husband’s fist to come crashing down on their shaky kitchen table; they’d donated the most money to the fireworks fund, and Bill had been the one to give up his Saturday morning, drive all the way to the Pennsylvania border to buy enough fireworks to fill the bed of their pick-up. He’d just sighed, though, dropped his chin to his chest.
A week or so later every golf cart key in the park went missing. Then, someone swapped people’s welcome signs. Their sign, a slice of tree trunk with Colvin’s Corner painted on it, ended up hanging crooked—damn thing looked downright jaunty when Mitsy went to retrieve it—from the Johnson’s porch. Dangling next to a waterfall of red petunias on their own stoop was a sign Mitsy would never have condoned: Flip Flops are the Glass Slippers of the Beach. Really, some people had no class.
Benson Beach RV Park came with a firm set of rules. That’s why Mitsy’s father had purchased a plot here, why he’d passed on the roughly rectangular piece of land to Mitsy when he got too old to travel up to Pulaski. Because the people here could be trusted. Families left their golf carts charging all night, keys waiting in the ignition. Lawn chairs stayed unfolded on cement-poured patios. Coolers full of sloshy ice and lone beers slept outdoors, rinsed and put away come morning. Mitsy wouldn’t have begrudged someone helping himself to one of their leftover bottles. But this? This was mayhem. Criminal.
“I might not graduate from high school,” Holly Colvin told her mom on a Tuesday morning squashed by brooding clouds.
Mitsy knew it wasn’t true. Holly worked hard at school, had plans to get a job next summer. In fact, she’d reminded her mom of it just last night. How a job would mean her own money—she’d been wanting to get a pet snake for years but had to fund this particular endeavor herself—and an excuse to avoid this place. “Maybe you should worry about that.”
Ricky, Holly’s friend from three trailers down, smirked but said nothing.
Mitsy didn’t respond. Holly had been playing this game all summer, dropping false confessions like breadcrumbs and expecting her mom to follow them. Mitsy had started the summer with the requisite murmurs—Oh boy. That’s not good. Well, you’d better do something about that—until she realized Holly’s “confessions” were really for Ricky’s benefit. She knew better than to believe Holly’s stories about her exploits. Holly had always done what she was supposed to. At least before. Mitsy refused to believe her daughter had transformed into this drug-using, delinquent beast; she reminded herself to loosen her grip on her daughter, stretch out her fingers.
The “stunts” gave Mitsy an opportunity to do just that. It had been easier than expected, in fact, since the whole community chewed and gnashed on their collection of scanty facts. Worried about what could possibly happen next. Would the hooligan kidnap entire trailers? Tow them a few miles down the road and abandon them in the defunct diner’s potholed parking lot, all while the occupants slept inside?
Mitsy drilled her pointer finger into her flower pots, presumably testing for moisture. She said, as if it had been just yesterday, “Thank god I got that sign back. That wasn’t cheap, you know. Karl charges a bundle for his work. I’ve always said, give me a wood burner and some pine and I could make a fortune.”
Holly rubbed at her nose. “Maybe it’s all the coke I’m doing. Have you ever tried writing essays while high? Phew, it’s a bitch.” She sat cross-legged in one of the folding chairs that flanked their trailer’s front door, a fashion magazine draped across her lap.
Mitsy suspected Holly still never read the articles, or even the photo captions, yet she renewed the subscriptions each year anyway. Maybe Holly just liked the feel of the glossy pages between her fingers, the pictures of silk, blousy gowns, skirts like upside down tulips. They used to peel back the pages together, point to their favorites, all without saying a word.
Mitsy plucked a watering can from the ground. Shook it, listening for the slosh of water. “Neither of you have seen anything suspicious?”
Holly turned to Ricky, grabbed his wrist. “Ricky, did you notice anything strange last week while you were tiptoeing around in the dark, stealing cheap, tasteless house signs?”
“Mrs. Colvin”—Ricky stared down at his phone, swiped at the screen—“someone’s just having a little fun, that’s all.”
“Do you call thievery fun?” Mitsy tipped the watering can over her potted basil. Looked at him through narrowed eyes as if he’d just confessed.
Ricky snorted. Shoved his phone in Holly’s face. They stifled laughs by pressing palms to their mouths. Mr. Colvin appeared in the trailer doorway. “Mitsy”—he yawned—“where are the donuts? I could have sworn we bought more.”
Ricky looked up, face slack now, eyebrows scrunched in concern. “Not the prankster? In your kitchen of all places? Swiping your pastries?”
“Top shelf of the pantry,” Mitsy said over her shoulder.
Mr. Colvin mumbled and surrendered himself to the trailer’s mid-morning pall. The door slammed closed behind him.
“Mr. Colvin and I love this place, that’s all. We feel . . . violated.”
Mitsy needed no help interpreting the snorts that followed. The double eye rolls, synchronized perfectly, like Holly and Ricky had been practicing.
“I know the feeling,” Holly said. She twisted in her seat and looked behind her accusingly, as if the trailer and plastic flower pots were guilty of deflowering her.
Mitsy hadn’t meant it hyperbolically, though. Something she wouldn’t tell Holly while Ricky sat there, wedged between them. She wouldn’t recount the hours it took her to load up on nonperishables. Fill plastic totes with sunscreen and Tylenol, Bill’s hemorrhoid cream. Boxes of macaroni and cheese, pans and spatulas. Then shove it all into the minivan’s belly.
Plus, the clothes. Hers and Bill’s. She’d given us packing for Holly, got tired of watching her daughter dump the stacks of summer dresses and bathing suits she had painstakingly folded. Instead, Holly tugged her suitcase zipper closed around too many pairs of black jeans and button-up flannels, a wardrobe Mitsy recognized as a boycott against the entire summer season.
Except this summer was different. For all her complaining, Holly had never had such fun at the RV park, even Mitsy could see that. She’d overheard Holly talking to Ricky about it. “It’s like living in a reality TV show,” she’d said “My mom created a neighborhood watch. Named herself president.” Holly had laughed. “She even gets up in the middle of the night and spies out the windows. Checks my bed like she actually believes I might be behind the pranks.”
That part, Holly had gotten wrong. Mitsy did rouse herself at ungodly hours of the night. Pat at the pull-out couch until she found Holly’s shrouded figure. Peer through the slatted blinds. Like maybe if she gazed out at this tiny world when all the people had been put away for a few hours, she’d find it different. Like it used to be. Calm. Peaceful. Hers and Holly’s.
Sometimes she did find Holly’s bed empty. Then she’d strain for two pinpricks of orange light out front, the tips of Holly’s and Ricky’s cigarettes. She’d watch the lights bob and cut arcs through the black and wonder what they whispered about. What did Holly see in this boy with the purposefully mussed hair? With the eyebrow ring sprouting from a patch of raw skin, reddened and smarting from his constant twisting. Mitsy would clean up their smattering of butts the next morning. Move the sand-filled coffee can closer to the chairs though she knew they’d still grind out their cigarettes in the scrubby grass.
Ricky’s family had joined the park just this summer, right at the start of the season. Made their appearance at the first community barbeque. Mitsy had brought her famous macaroni salad. Needed both arms to carry the massive bowl. She’d made Holly come along—How would it look if you weren’t there, and at the first picnic—with the hopes that the food and the Frisbees and the music, perfect for dancing, would jar her daughter out of her funk: Eye rolling and grunting and the apparently perpetual state of always-wanting-to-die.
Holly didn’t dance. Nor did she touch Mitsy’s macaroni salad, the prescient concoction of pasta and celery commas, their entire relationship on pause. Mitsy looked for Bill—found him part of a snarl of men who’d claimed the picnic table nearest the coolers—and then succumbed to the gossip. Had she heard who was leaving? Which was sad, of course, but didn’t that mean their old plot would be up for dibs? Had she seen Chet Thompson camper-hopping in the middle of the night? And how did Dahlia Branson get so much action?
The whole time—from hamburgers to the band’s peppiest song to Terry Carr’s peanut butter fudge brownies—she kept peeking over at Holly and Ricky. Ricky’s mom called him away a few times, slung her arm over his shoulder and showed him off to some new neighbor. He and Holly would strain towards each other like magnets held almost end-to-end. Then they’d rush together upon his release. Rest into each other, an obvious pair.
“What’s dad doing?” Holly asked.
The question surprised Mitsy, so strong had been her memory of that picnic, of Holly’s shifted loyalties. She glanced at the trailer, but only long enough to give it a dismissive wave. “You can’t make everyone take advantage of this gorgeous weather, that’s for sure.”
Ricky scanned the sky. “All I see is clouds.”
“Exactly,” Mitsy said with a decisive nod, as if Ricky finally understood a piece of mysterious wisdom she’d needed to pass on. “A good storm is sometimes all it takes to appreciate blue skies.”
“Well, then, Ricky.” Holly stood, brushed at the seat of her pants. “We should get going and enjoy this beautiful day.”
Mitsy watched them walk away, heads bent over their phones. Connected and disconnected at the same time, lost in their own screens, yet mutually lost. She’d settle for that. She certainly would. She sank into one of the now-empty chairs. Alone again.
A shriek shattered the silence before Mitsy’s body had unclenched.
Dahlia Branson came charging around the corner of the Colvin’s RV, wearing a bathrobe and a hot-pink towel turban. She was barefoot, face chalky white. She spotted Mitsy and stopped, hand resting on her heaving chest. “Thank god,” she panted.
“Dahlia. What happened?” Mitsy sprang from her chair. “What did that blasted prankster do this time?”
Dahlia just shook her head. “Worse,” she managed to get out. “Far worse.”
“You sure it wasn’t him? He’s crafty. Devious.”
“A snake. A big snake.” She stretched her arms wide to demonstrate. “Right next to my bed. Relaxing. Until I screamed. Now it’s gone, and I have no idea where it went.”
Mitsy had never heard of snakes finding their way into trailers. At least not here in upstate New York. “You’re sure?” she asked. “What kind was it? Did you get a good look?”
“It was a snake. That’s all I need to know. Tell that husband of yours to come check it out, will you? I may share my trailer with some stale men from time-to-time, but I draw the line at snakes.” Dahlia trotted back the way she’d come.
Mitsy did as Dahlia asked. The price she paid for heading up the new neighborhood watch. Catching pranksters, only part of the job.
News of Dahlia’s snake slithered throughout the park in less than an hour. Mitsy fielded questions all afternoon. Can you buy snake traps? As a matter of fact, you can. In bulk? Well that, I don’t know. I’ll look into it. Or, should we call an exterminator? That seems over reactive at this point, doesn’t it? Would this be a community expense or would families have to pay individually? I’m sure the park management can be persuaded to help. What if it’s poisonous? What if one of our kids gets bitten? We could have an infestation on our hands! Even Holly couldn’t resist talking about the snake-sighting over dinner. Between bites of macaroni and cheese, she mumbled questions: Had Dahlia cried? Had she just stepped out of the shower when she saw it? Did that mean the snake had seen her naked? Because the sight of Dahlia’s saggy body had to be scarier than any reptile.
Mitsy tried not to laugh at that. She did, though. She could have sworn Holly tried on a smile herself for a second there.
In the end, Mitsy agreed to drive into town to buy traps. Bill handed her the keys to the truck from his well-worn spot on the couch. “Grab some more beer,” he told her before turning back to the TV.
She bought the traps, three bags full, at the local hardware store. Ran the rest of her errands, taking her time. Darkness, like a giant ink stain, had already seeped across the sky by the time she returned. She stepped out under night’s umbrella, struck by the hominess of it all. The murmuring television from next door. The squawk of an argument over at the Thompsons’. Bursts of laughter at a distant trailer. Her trailer sat quiet, though. Asleep. She’d head inside in a bit. The evening, with its light wind and smattering of stars, seemed too good to shut out just yet.
The Benson Beach RV Park didn’t allow roosters. Still, Mitsy rose with the sun. That particular morning, because the sun had dragged behind it a series of screams. A rough epithet. Tears? Mitsy couldn’t be sure. Her brain, still addled from lack of sleep—she’d stayed out fairly late—made her slow to respond. Until the pounding on the trailer door, a rattle so awful it could have raised the dead. Mitsy couldn’t help but feel like she’d woken up in a fairy tale. The snarl of people waiting outside her trailer looked for all the world like an angry mob. All they were missing were pitchforks and torches. Holly appeared beside her, rubbing her eyes and blinking into the overexposed sky.
A snake dangled from Mr. Thompson’s hand. Not the snake Dahlia had found in her trailer. This snake was rubber, painted black and white, red tongue frozen mid-flick. A child’s toy. “This has to stop,” Mr. Thompson said. “This prankster. The whole place is littered with rubber snakes.”
The others nodded in agreement. Mrs. Lansing shuddered, rubbed at her arms. “I almost had a heart attack,” she said.
Holly stepped down onto the grass. Mitsy watched her spin in slow motion, taking in the whole scene: the patchy yards, the golf carts parked like miniature cars beside most of the trailers, the charcoal grills, and the short clotheslines draped in beach towels and faded bathing suits. Rubber snakes hung everywhere. From hanging plants. From trailer roofs. Over the edges of lawn chairs.
“Let’s all calm down,” Mitsy said. “While annoying, at least this prank is relatively harmless.”
“I’ll tell you what it is.” Mr. Thompson, the ringleader, moved closer to Mitsy. “It’s proof that the prankster is one of us. He’s no weekender. This guy lives here. It’s the only way he would have known about Dahlia’s snake.”
Mitsy nodded. “I hear you, Chet. And it makes sense.”
Ricky appeared, then, fully dressed, hair already mussed to perfection. “Oh. My. God.” “I know.” Holly grabbed his wrist. “This is so fucking amazing.” She turned back to Mitsy. “Ricky and I will clean it up.” She glanced down at her flannel pajama pants, her sweatshirt. “Let me just change first.”
Holly disappeared inside.
Mitsy clapped her hands. “Listen up everyone. Holly and Ricky have volunteered to clean up the mess. Why don’t we all reconvene in, say, twenty minutes to talk about this. About our next step. I agree with all of you. These pranks have completely changed the tenor of our park, and we won’t tolerate it anymore.”
Chet Thompson nodded in assent. It was enough to disband the mob. For now. Mitsy collapsed into a lawn chair. Closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to talk to Ricky.
Holly wasn’t long. She trotted down the steps a minute later. She’d changed into a pair of denim shorts. A tank top. She carried a trash bag in each hand.
“Come on,” she told Ricky. “Let’s go snake-collecting. But we’re keeping them all.”
Ricky turned to her, affronted. “Of course,” he said. “Cause I tell you what. We’re hiding these things inside people’s trailers next year.”
Holly offered up her palm for a high five. Ricky slapped it. “Brilliant,” she said.
Mitsy watched the two walk away, pluck snakes from flowerpots and open coolers. Holly practically tripped over the grass, as if she’d shed the darkness she’d been carrying around this summer. Most summers. Mitsy wanted to sit here longer, revel in her daughter’s exposed legs, her laughter. At least she’d have next summer, too, a few warm months of connection before Holly crossed the threshold into her future, leaving her mom a single magnet, no one to push or pull against. Duty called, though. She needed to change out of her robe. Start a pot of coffee.
And make sure she’d thrown out that receipt from the toy store.