It took us three days to get in the vicinity of where we wanted to be in Hiawatha National Forest. There was a little river than ran under US-2. Well, it was more of a creek. There were quite a few of them actually, but for whatever reason we picked this one. As far as I know, it didn’t have a name. Hiawatha National Forest was absolutely peppered with lakes and ponds, and likewise I don’t think very many of them even had names. So we deviated off the beaten path, otherwise known as US-2, and began following this large creek. It probably eventually dumped into Lake Michigan which was just behind us a few miles.
At first we were able to walk alongside the creek, but then the bush starting getting thick. So we either had to walk the creek or walk the bush. Caring Sue just declared that we were going to walk the creek. She sat down and began untying her boots. The backlash was immediate and overwhelming. She was really taken aback. I could see it in her expression.
Even Prof was in on the offensive. He said, “We don’t want to be going to a place where the only way we can get there is by wading through water. I mean, I know it is okay today. It is nice. The water isn’t that cold, but in the end of November and beyond it’ll be a different story.”
Caring Sue said, “But when it freezes, it’ll be as good as any well worn path, but without all of the traffic that usually comes along with.”
Prof shook his head in disagreement, but said, “Right, but there is a lot in between now and then and a considerable amount of time after where the water is not going to be frozen.”
Bill said, “I just don’t want to get my feet wet—ever.”
Caring Sue looked to him and said in disgust, “Oh man up, Bill.”
Bill said, “What? I’m serious!”
She replied, “I know, Bill. That is what makes it so sad.”
There was silence for quite some time. It had nothing to do with Bill getting rebuffed. We were mulling it over. Something, or someone, had to give. Caring Sue was not known for her willingness to compromise. She would take on the whole lot of us if she thought she was right. This was just such an instance. I didn’t necessarily want to walk in that river either. I wasn’t going to admit it. I would just walk it and keep my misery to myself. If there even is any to be had. I would say that it took courage for Bill to admit it openly, but when you get to know Bill, you discover that it was not that at all.
Stephan, Bear, and I thought Prof was right. Caring Sue said, “I understand what you are saying, but it is precisely this, its repulsiveness, that makes it attractive to me. Think about it. It is a path no one would choose on the face of it, which is exactly why we should. Keep in mind that we not only have to completely avoid Park Rangers and Game Wardens, but it would also be very good if a hunter or a hiker never happens upon us as well. If they see the cabin, we’re done for. They’ll turn us in for sure. People don’t like squatters, poachers, free loaders, and the like. If they turn us in, we’re probably doing time. Especially since we’re vagrant. Simple as that. There isn’t a damn one of us can prove where we’re from. So. If it is challenging for us to get there, think about what that is going to do to someone who doesn’t even know we’re out there. I’d even be willing to talk about getting everyone a set of waders, maybe even just a set of knee-highs would do. Michigan has been good to us as far as money goes. We can’t forget that.”
Almost everybody furled their brow and shook their head. So she continued trying to sell it by saying, “Hunting season is just around the corner. Starts about a week from today. I can’t remember exactly what it is that is allowed to be hunted. There was a small hunting section in one of the markets we stopped in down in the Lower Peninsula. It had a counter and behind that counter was a display with various ammunition in it. The counter itself had ammunition in it. But it also offered a hunting license. It had it all listed—the fees, what starts when. There is something you’re allowed to hunt starting here in a few days from now. It might be rabbit. Deer season is where we are most likely, I think, to have a run-in. People will be out here with guns in the last two weeks of November and the last week and a half in December. I do remember that. We always have to worry about the archers. But by first of January, we can rest assured that we won’t be stumbled upon by any hunters. They’ll be poachers at that point.”
Bill said proudly, “Like us.” His comment went untouched by everyone. Caring Sue looked at him briefly, but decided not to say anything at all. Perhaps it was the truth, but it wasn’t anything anyone was proud of except for Bill. The reason why Bill was gloating at what he thought was our status as poachers was because he hoped that it fed his ‘outlaw’ image in some way. Bill was pretty sure that he was a legend—it was just the world that hadn’t figured it out quite yet. Whatever Bill was trying to glorify, it wasn’t true. No one had a problem with the letter of the law at all in terms of hunting. We just couldn’t get a hunting license because between the seven us not a single one of us could even produce an ID. No one wanted to hunt deer anyway. Bear and Machine regularly shot squirrel with an air soft pistol Bear bought at a resale shop. They were just rodents though, so nobody thought much of it. We certainly didn’t think of that as poaching. We knew there were laws pertaining to rabbits. They did hunt a few rabbits. And of course we fished. All of us did that. I don’t think any of us violated the spirit of the law in our hunts though. We just failed to pay our rightful dues to the State. Whatever was brought back to our cabin over the course of the winter was never too much for seven people. Good use was made of just about everything. I never turned anything away. I watch Bear and Machine put some of the organs in the stew. I didn’t care. Winter is hard.
Caring Sue said, “First things first, we got to get up this river. I figure if we are about a three hours walk back to the road, then we’re probably pretty safe from intrusion.”
Prof said, “Caring Sue, you want to get seven pairs of waders?”
Caring Sue shrugged, “I know there are obstacles, Prof, but we’ve got to get deep if we don’t want to get caught.”
Prof said, “It is going to be expensive in these parts. If they can even be had.”
Caring Sue agreed, “I know, lets walk up the creek today. We’ll camp somewhere up there tonight. If we don’t find a place today, we’ll find one tomorrow. Then we’ll find a way back to the road by dry land. It doesn’t hurt to have options. We’ll just do the uncomfortable option first. Alright?”
And it was agreed. The boys left their footwear on except Stephan who took his sandals off and walked the creek bed with the rest of us bare feet. The water wasn’t that cold and the creek bed was rather sandy.
Prof said, “Something tells me there is a large river up ahead.”
Caring Sue asked, “Why’s that?”
Prof said, “My hunch is that we’re walking on silt—washout from a river.”
Whatever it was, we were making good time because of it. The creek wasn’t doing much to slow us down aside from the obvious. Caring Sue said she wanted to get us a couple of miles up the creek. After a couple of hours of walking, we would jump out of the creek and explore spots.
At the first spot we explored, we weren’t there long before Caring Sue said, “Let’s not get too deep into a place quite yet—you know? Lets check ’em out, but lets check the next one out too—every spot between here and the river. Once we find the river, then we’ll double back to our best option. We need to know where that river is though. It’ll have fish.”
Prof said, “Well, I didn’t say there was a river for sure.”
Caring Sue said, “I know, Prof, but I think you might be right. If there is a river, then we don’t want to live too close to it…you know…because of run-ins with people. But nobody is going to come down a creek like this. Hell, it was like pulling teeth to get you guys to do it.”
Bear said, “It isn’t bad. I’ll dry my boots by the fire tonight and they’ll be fine. Probably a lot easier than trying to navigate the bush. We need a machete.”
Prof said, “That really isn’t a good idea, Bear.”
Bill and Machine asked, “Why not?”
Caring Sue said, “We don’t want to give them a trail that leads right to us!”
Prof said, “Well, there is that, yes, but I was thinking more along the lines of what you were saying before. Why we don’t want to get caught, but I am saying it doesn’t hurt to take some time to think about what happens when we do. This isn’t state land. It is Federal. At the same time though it isn’t either one of these things. It is not Big Brother’s or Little Brother’s land. It is God’s land and we are God’s creatures. And we have a right to live free abiding by only God’s rules, which is really just the law of the jungle!”
Prof had managed to rouse nearly everyone up. There was hooting and hollering. They were all throwing words of encouragement. Then after a moments the boys simmered down and there was silence as we walked up the creek. Then Prof said, “Just the same, if we do get caught, there will be hell to pay and we are not going to be able to escape it. So what I am saying is lets try not to give them reasons to make our stay in hell any longer or more uncomfortable. If we hack a trail, they might charge us with ten thousand counts of malicious destruction of Federal land. You know they would painstakingly count each and every blade of grass that was harmed. There are only two entities in this universe that would do such a thing—the Good Lord and the United States Government. So what I am saying is lets tread lightly, eh?”
Bill said, “You sayin’ you don’t mind walking up this creek every time you have to wander out, old man?”
Prof didn’t immediately respond. I know that I was offended with what Bill said, so I don’t know what Prof was feeling. After quite some time though, Prof said, “No Bill, I don’t have a problem with it at all.”
Stephan said, “Neither do I.”
Bear said, “Me neither.”
Machine said, “The river is fine.”
I said, “I’m okay with it too.”
Bill was outnumbered unanimously because we already knew what Caring Sue thought. She was the one who initiated the whole thing to begin with. So I don’t know how much of it was a vote for the creek walk as opposed to each vote being a swipe at Bill. I looked at the reaction in my mates’ faces after Bill said what he said. They didn’t like it at all. It was disrespectful.
Caring Sue said, “It is worth at least checking a hunting store or two to see about getting a few pairs of waders. Maybe we can just find some knee-highs for everyone. I am almost the shortest one here and so far they’d work for me.”
We were up the creek all day, in and out of the water, checking this spot and then the next. They were all kind of the same. Then it was getting to the point where we were just looking for a place to camp for the evening. We had not found the river and we were not going to find it that day. If it even existed. And all the possible locales for our shelter were basically all the same. Nothing had jumped out at us. We were all exhausted, hungry, and tired of being wet. So we just stopped and set up camp in the spot that happened to be in front of us there at the end of our rope. We didn’t follow it all the way back. Not that night. We didn’t know what was up and over the hill away from the creek. There was still daylight but we figured it was just the same ole, same ole. We were hardly enthused. We would just do it in the morning. First thing. Then we would go check the next spot or go try to find this elusive river. If it even existed.
In the morning, while we were drinking our coffee, even before breakfast, we happened to wander back. We went up and over the hill. There was no dispute that we had found our home for the winter. It was a large hill and when you arrived at the top what was before you was a concave almost circular area—like a long dormant volcano that had blew its top eons ago. Except it wasn’t. There was an area where the circularity began to deviate from the form and what was there was a huge rock face. It was slanted about ninety degrees. We all knew instantly that we had the makings of a fireplace. We all could see it. We were sold. We could already feel the heat radiating off that rock face in the dead of winter!
Caring Sue said, “Lets spend the day rounding up boulders for our fireplace—want to? We need boulders, boys! Lots of them!”
Just like that everyone began searching the ground. Prof said to Caring Sue, “We haven’t even found the river yet.”
Caring Sue said, “If it even exists.”
Prof said, “Yeah.”
Caring Sue said, “The creek is a water source.”
Prof said, “Yeah.”
Caring Sue said, “They’re excited about this place. They can see it. It is early. They are rested. Sober. I figured we should capitalize on that enthusiasm. We’ll get more boulders out of them today than any other day. Tomorrow we can build on that momentum.”
Prof shook his head and then said, “Okay.”
Later on that morning, I was heading back to the rock face with an armful of boulders when I heard a “psst” directed at me, I thought. I looked for it and spotted Bear beneath a tree near the top of a hill to my left. He was waving at me to come hither. As I made my way toward him he put his finger across his lips to let me know to keep it quiet. When I was there next to him, he whispered, “Set your boulders down for a second. I just wanted you to see this jack-ass at work. While you have been busting your ass grabbing all of those, this is what he has been doing. I was digging this big mother up when I noticed him about five maybe ten minutes ago. Who knows how long he has actually been sitting there. Probably all morning. He is a jack-ass—see for yourself.”
I watched Bear carefully move his head up over the top of the hill so he could observe. I carefully followed his lead. What we observed was Bill doing only God knows what. Antics I think might be an apt term. I can tell you what he wasn’t doing—he wasn’t gathering boulders from the forest floor. At one point he was standing on his head—with pretty good form actually. He would then get to his feet and do what I can only describe as karate maneuvers. At other times he seemed to be holding down a conversation with someone whose appearance wasn’t apparent—at least not to us. They were very heated conversations too with a lot of finger-pointing and threats. We couldn’t really make out what he was saying. It was loud, but it was indecipherable from our distance. I saw Bear retreat off in the corner of my eye, so I followed suit. We moved down to of our boulder hauls.
Bear said, “I don’t know about that guy. This isn’t the first time I noticed something like this. He isn’t going to haul any boulders today, but he’ll act like he did later on tonight. He never brings anything to the table except an empty plate. All he does is take.” He shook his head in disgust. Then he turned to me and said, “Sorry about making you drop your load. I just wanted somebody else to see it. I’m going to say something to the others. I don’t know how you feel about Bill…”
I interjected, “He gives me the willies.”
Bear looked at me for a few moments. He looked at me right in the eye. He pursed his lips and shook his head in agreement. Then he said, “We’re not going to allow someone to keep taking advantage of us. Nobody is going to ask you anything about it. We’ve been suspicious of Bill for a while, for a variety of reasons. Everybody is kind of fed up with him. This is just another notch in the ledger. Hey ah…I’ve got one more in the ground over here—the one I was trying to get when I spied Bill. You mind giving me a hand getting it up. It is a nice one. Big. Then I’ll help you get reloaded. Then I’ll get loaded and we’ll head back together.”
I agreed and we did all that. As we started moving out, I smirked. I said, “Bear, I kind of want to scream at the top of my lungs, “GET BACK TO WORK!”
Bear thought it was funny, but he said, “No. It really won’t do any good. Bill is a slippery snake.”
So we didn’t say anything. We just walked back. Bear said, “Bill is a good musician and entertainer. He is funny and intelligent. He is charming as hell. I think he would make an excellent jester for a king. The king would give him room, board, food, drink, and other intoxicants, and in exchange for this salary, Bill would constantly entertain the king. Bill would thrive. He would love it. Unfortunately, such a thing doesn’t exist anymore, so Bill, like all artists today, must do something outside of their chosen craft to put food in their mouth. Except Bill doesn’t wanna. He pouts and whines that the stuff should just be handed to him. It is like he is perpetually stuck in the spoon-feeding stage. Well, I’m not Bill’s daddy and I sure the hell am not a king, so something is going to have to give when it comes to Bill.”
And that is exactly what Bear told Prof and Caring Sue when we got back to the proposed site. He told them about what he and I had observed. They took it in. They weren’t surprised.
Caring Sue said, “Well Stephan and Machine have already been back and are out again. We just got back and were heading back out.”
Bear shrugged and said, “That is it? You don’t want to talk about it?”
Caring Sue said, “No, I don’t really. Not today. I’ve got five people who are working harder than me. I’m trying to focus on keeping up with them rather than focus on the one guy that I’ve got beat by a country mile. Bear, we all know that he is dead weight. I am actually surprised that he has hung on as long as he has with this winter adventure. I didn’t even think that he was going to come north with us—certainly not into Michigan.”
Prof said, “Bear, think about this—do you want to be the one to tell him that he needs to go? And where is he going to go?”
Bear interjected, “That is just it! That little turd knows he’s got us! He knows that we couldn’t throw him out now! He isn’t going to do anything until at least spring!” He was quite animated and there was something about it that struck Caring Sue as funny. But Bear wasn’t trying to be funny and wasn’t laughing.
Prof said, “It is a lot harder than it sounds. It is one thing to think a thing. It is entirely something altogether different to act upon it. When Bill is in front of you, as you are fixing to confront him, you will have no choice but to see his heart. You will see that vulnerability and that tenderness. It is there. Bill does have a heart. And if you strike it, you will feel bad. I know you, Bear. I think Caring Sue has the right idea. We all know what Bill is. We don’t need to proclaim it from the mountaintops. He thinks he has us wrapped around his little finger, but he is wrong. We are onto him. We’re mindful of him and his tactics. It is getting worked out. When you see Stephan and Machine, you should tell them what you saw and just know that Bill will be get what he has coming. Can we just leave it there for now?”
Bear shook his head to indicate that he could. I collected boulders alongside him all afternoon. He talked about a lot of things, but he never talked about Bill. By the end of that day, we had accumulated more than enough boulders to make the fireplace. Caring Sue was very pleased. With the necessary resources more or less secured to build the hearth, Prof outlined his plan for how the shelter was going to be built around the hearth. It was just basic stick construction lean-to. It would be twenty feet wide and fifteen feet off the rock face at the base. This way everyone would get a three foot width in front of the fire and would then have about ten or eleven feet deep as well. One could keep their pack and other belongings at the back and sleep in front of the fire. Maybe one wanted to roast their feet or perhaps one would rather toast their head—to each, there own.
All seven of us left together early in the morning. There was a hardware store up US-2 east a few miles. We passed it on our way in. This hardware store was our destination. It was also a bit of a reconnaissance mission. The hardware store and its surrounding businesses were going to be our only access to civilization for the next few months. Caring Sue planned on spending a great deal of time “mentally photographing” the aisles. She told us that she did not mean literally, but just the same, she could survey an aisle and if we needed a thing later on this winter, she could almost see in her head where it was at in the store. Together with Prof, they could spend a coupe hours in the store and account for many of the known possibilities without actually buying a thing. Of course, we were there to buy a thing. A few things actually. Above all, we needed mortar cement. That and some tools. The actual construction of the fireplace was Machine’s forte. Stephan was versed in masonry as well. Together they figure we needed at least seven bags. Actually, they figured we needed more, but seven was all we could carry since all we had was seven bodies and it took a body to carry a bag.
Right before we left, Bear said, “Hey Bill. You know you have to carry a bag of cement back here with you, right?”
Bill said, “Are you serious? How heavy?”
Bear said. “Yeah. They’re forty pound bags.“
Bill said, “Well, I don’t know if I can even lift that amount much less carry it.”
Bear said, “Well Bill, we’ll try to just make due with just six then, okay? A woman and a child are each going to each carry one, but don’t you worry yourself about it any, okay Bill?”
Bill said, “Alright. Thanks, man.”
I didn’t bother Bear with the comment about me being a kid and likewise Caring Sue didn’t get all feminist on him. Bear also didn’t explain to Bill that it was sarcasm. Everybody just let it lay. At least now we knew heading out that we were only coming back with six bags. We had a discussion about heading back to the road and it was decided that we were just going to take the creek since it was the straightest line between two points.
Prof was keen for noting the time we departed. He said, “We’ve found home. Lets move toward the road with no deviations. Lets see how long it takes us on a good day to get to the road. It is important to know such things. I’ll time the hardware as well.”
As it turns out, it wasn’t simply a hardware store, much to our surprise and benefit. Probably two-thirds of the store was devoted to hardware, but the other third was devoted to life’s other necessities. It even had a few aisles devoted to groceries. In the hardware section, they had ten bags of the mortar cement. We bought the six. Caring Sue approached Bill and informed him that he would be carrying a box with some tools and such. Bill agreed with no fuss. So they went to the masonry aisle and bought what was absolutely indispensable.
At the checkout, was an elderly old man. It turns out, he was the owner. And he was lonely. That was why he was working as the cashier. He craved human contact. Caring Sue stayed with him for a long time after she paid the bill and talked with the man. It might even have been upwards of an hour. I stayed in the store with the man and Caring Sue. I helped the boys stack the six bags of cement on the sidewalk out front. They proceeded to horse around with one another. Maybe it was watching Caring Sue and Prof do all that window shopping that got them pent up with energy. Prof was back and forth between hanging with the boys outside and listening to the man tell Caring Sue his story. I was all about the man and his story. It was a simple story really. Maybe not the sort of story even worth writing down, but it certainly was worth listening to a very old man tell his humble love story.
The man who owned the store was named Fred. He was a widower. He lost his wife of sixty three years a few years prior and he was having a tough time of it now. They married when they were young—basically still kids. They were childhood friends. They grew up playing house together and often played as if they were husband and wife. The other children in the neighborhood even thought of them as a natural match. It was thought of that way by others through all their years growing up. Their parents even got in on the speculation of future nuptials. It seemed like destiny. Fred pointed out that the average life expectancy back then was maybe fifty, but was probably even less. In his time, being a teenager wasn’t that far off from being middle aged. No one thought they were too young. She was seventeen and he was sixteen.
Fred had lost Delores within the past few years. She simply laid down for an afternoon nap and never got back up. Fred was the one who discovered her. He said he honestly figured that they would both grow together to be ninety years old at the bare minimum. Delores passed away when she was eighty. The word Fred used to describe his condition was ‘shell shock’. It startled him. That it could happen so suddenly and without any announcement. They had plans that day. They had plans for the rest of their life together. After listening for quite some time, Caring Sue just came right out and asked him if he was thinking about suicide.
I was kind of shocked and Fred looked right at Caring Sue and pointed. He said kind of angrily, “Now how is that going to work, hon? First of all, there is the Good Lord and we all know how he looks upon such action. If I go and pull a stunt like that, I’ll be lucky if the Lord even lets me see her again. I know it is not my place to judge, but there was not a kinder or more gentle soul on this Earth then that of my Delores. I know that I am biased toward her, but she really did have a heart of gold and I know to what Kingdom she must belong. Salvation is not gained through work alone, so I will tell you she was a woman of unshakable faith. She even kept the Sabbath holy each and every week for most of her years. Who do you know that does that?” He looked to Caring Sue who was just listening to him speak of his late wife, and so he continued, “And secondly, even if the good Lord would pardon me, how could I ever face her again after such a thing? Such a selfish and dastardly deed! I’ve got children and grandchildren. What about the people who find my self-mutilated body? Somebody will have to clean up after me after I’m done. Whether I shoot myself, hang myself, or cut my wrists, I leave a horrible image in the mind of someone I love. The person who will come and find me will be the person who loves me the most—our daughter. What kind of thing is that to do to somebody? Kind of like adding insult to injury don’t you think. I mean, I’ve got to break her heart at some point, but…no! I will go when the Lord will have me and not until then. I just hope I am fit to be in His Kingdom when my time arrives.”
Caring Sue reached over and put her hand on Fred’s hand. Incidentally, it was the same hand that had the same finger on it that he was gesturing with only moments ago. He was almost admonishing her and she knew it. Still smiling, she said, “Good! I’m glad to hear it, Fred! I did not mean to offend you. Many people in your position can’t cope with it the level loss you’re grappling with. You lost your best friend. You spent nearly a whole lifetime with this person. Experiencing everything. Most people can’t even comprehend what it is like to have such a friend, let alone comprehend what it must feel like to lose it. I don’t know what it is like. I am halfway through this life myself. I’ve never found it. I sure the hell never lost it.”
Fred looked to her and nodded in agreement. You could tell by the tension present in his facial muscles that he was holding back tears. He didn’t answer to her above and beyond that though. Instead he looked right at me and said, “I’m going to say this to you because you are still young and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Heck, you’re about the same age I was when Delores and I got married. You know what the secret was to our success?” I shook my head to indicate that I didn’t know. He said, “It is a cliche. Everybody says it. I’ve been to dozens and dozens and dozens of weddings in my eighty five years. I’ve heard it said at almost every wedding and it is almost always bullshit when they say it, but it really is true—friendship! I married my best friend just like everybody else, but in my case it really was the truth.”
He went on and on about his beloved Delores. He pointed to a picture on the wall and pulled out others still from his wallet. Caring Sue was all too happy to give the man her undivided attention while he told his stories. Eventually another customer came in, a local who was on a first name basis with Fred, and so, Caring Sue decided it was a good time to wrap it up for the day and let someone else have a peek into Fred’s broken-open heart. She gave Fred a hug and then looked at me and asked if I was ready to go. I indicated that I was. I shook Fred’s hand and expressed my satisfaction with having met him. I also wished him well and then we headed toward the door. I wasn’t like Caring Sue. She almost matched his level of vulnerability except she wasn’t working with a heart that had been in a fender bender with all of its contents strewn about the street. To me, Fred was still a stranger. I couldn’t give him vulnerability.
I was just about to open the front door for Caring Sue when something occurred to her. She stopped, turned around, and asked Fred if there was a hunting and fishing store nearby. He said we probably have to either go east to Thompson or go west to Rapid River. He pulled out a rather ragged looking phone book, but then immediately threw it in the garbage. He then reached under the counter and pulled out a newer looking one. It turns out that even though it was only the third week in September, they had already issued the 1993 edition of the Yellow Pages. Caring Sue asked Fred if she could just have the one he threw away and of course he complied. He couldn’t have cared less.
While Caring Sue was investing in a relationship with the local shopkeeper, Prof and the boys had thoroughly gone through his dumpster behind the store. There wasn’t much to be had. There were two five gallon buckets that were full of debris—mostly cigarette butts. They were emptied of their debris and rinsed out with the spigot there at the back of the store. This is what Caring Sue made Bill carry back along with the newly acquired masonry tools. Machine and Stephan also picked out a few corrugated cardboard boxes that were to be used in the construction of the hearth. These were left in their flattened condition and were also carried back by Bill.
Next to the store was a Clark brand gas station. Aside from the pumps, there was a small building that housed the cashier and a relatively small assortment of snacks, beverages, and a select few auto supplies. It had a full assortment of tobacco products, as well as full access to all the games the Michigan Lottery was offering. She walked up, stepped in front of the door, stopped, never made a motion toward the door handle, and then just turned around and walked away. It looked odd to me and perhaps I had a puzzled look on my face because as she neared me she shrugged and said, “You never know what you’ll need or when. At some point this winter we might be happy to know that they are open at six and close at midnight every night except Sunday. And on Sunday they don’t open until noon and they close at nine.” The other businesses around the general store where a taxidermist and an insurance office. Of course, these were more or less useless to us. Even the gas station could not really serve any of our needs. The boys found that the most cost effective way to smoke cigarettes was to roll their own. Fred’s store carried the brand that they liked and though it wasn’t the cheapest they ever paid, it wasn’t outrageously priced either. We really were in the middle of nowhere, so Fred’s store was a good find.
For this reason the spirits were high heading back. The store was much, much more than we expected. Plus, Caring Sue was proudly displaying the phone book and telling the story of how she acquired it. She really did feel like it was fate. It covered the counties of Alger, Delta, and Schoolcraft in the Upper Peninsula. Counties in the UP are much, much larger that their Lower Peninsula counterparts. Looking at the map, the area it covered was huge. It stretched from Lake Superior’s coast in the north right down to Lake Michigan’s coast in the south and the area going east and west was even wider yet. Yet despite this large area, the phone book was rather thin. Having grown up in the Detroit area, I had witnessed my fair share of phone books. I just assumed that they were all that thick. This place was sparsely populated indeed. We really were in the middle of nowhere. They even had their own language. Well, it was English, but it was a dialect so strange that because we didn’t speak it, we were immediately recognized as outsiders from the moment we said, “Hello.” The locals, or Yoopers as they are known, assumed we were from the Lower Peninsula. The fact was that I was the only one that actually was a Michigander at all.
Fred’s store was a two hour walk each way, which meant it would take four hours in a day just to get to and from the store. He was our closest neighbor. A fact that Caring Sue had to point out repeatedly in a rather heated discussion she had with the boys. It seems some of them thought she spent way too much time in the store “wasting time” with the store owner. She immediately defended herself. She adamantly said, “You are wrong! It is the diametric opposite of what you are saying. It was I and Piper who actually worked the most today to get the most out of this trip! We walked two hours to get to our closest neighbor who also happens to own a general store—more or less.” She held her index finger up to her chest and then stated, “That was actually an investment on my part. It will eventually pay us dividends. You watch. You’ll see.”
Bill said with a wide grin, “I like the way you think, Caring Sue. I was thinking the same thing. That old man has got to be loaded. He can’t take none of it to heaven with him. He is just going to leave it to his next of kin, who are just his kids, who are probably loaded too. What would it hurt to make friends with the guy and then, you know, just let him go ahead and let him be a good friend, you know?”
Caring Sue immediately turned around so she could address Bill more directly. She was walking backwards. Her brow was furled. She looked at Bill for a long few seconds before she exclaimed, “What? What is wrong with you, Bill?” She continued to walk backwards and stare at him. Her brow was still furled. She was waiting for an answer from Bill. Then she said, “I’m serious! What is wrong with you, Bill?”
Bill just shrugged and said, “What?”
Caring Sue continued to walk backwards and stare at him. He was walking up just ahead of me right next to Machine and behind Stephan and Bear. She had to look past between Stephen and Bear to spy Bill, so I knew they knew what was going on. I could see Prof was aware that Caring Sue’s anger had been roused. He was glancing over at her nervously. I hate to say it, but he was uneasy. I know he had her back—we all did—but I couldn’t help but notice his aversion to confrontation in moments such as these. She kept the cold stare—straight and steady. Her furled brow said it all. Bill knew he was under the gun. He knew she had him in the cross-hairs of her sight. Bill just kept darting his eyes from her’s. He couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t maintain eye contact. He was uncomfortable. I had a good view of him and Caring Sue from my vantage point. She was not uncomfortable—at all. She knew she was turning the screws on him and she didn’t even have to say a word. Her fixed eyes were enough. Despite my perfect vantage point to watch the drama unfold, I was probably the one who cared the least. I didn’t have anything against Bill. Though I had been walking with them for a few months at that point, it hadn’t been long enough to have been manipulated by Bill, not specifically anyway.
I don’t think I was the only one that thought it was all coming to a head right then and there between the group and the so-called Outlaw Oklahoma Bill. However, that confrontation didn’t happen that day. Caring Sue stopped staring after awhile. She turned back around and said, “Anyway…by building a relationship, if not a friendship, a legitimate friendship…” She did pause for a few moments and the emphasis is hers. Then she continued, “…it might prove to be priceless. We don’t know what the winter will bring and what we might need in response to it. It might end up being more than we can afford. Fred needs things. Some of those things that money cannot buy. We can give Fred those things. We might really need a friend this winter and now is the time to make that friend—when the weather is fair.”
We were home from Fred’s by mid afternoon. There was still plenty of daylight left and Machine was particularly motivated and inspired. He was ready to go. He rather quickly infected Stephan with this spirit. Caring Sue also was then taken away by his drive. Bear asked Bill and me to go fetch water with him. We had the two five gallon buckets, but we had our usual vessels as well. In addition to the cement making, there was also going to be the issue of supper at some point. It took some time and some maneuvering but we were able to get both buckets filled to the brim from the creek which as stated before was rather shallow. We also collected enough water for us to drink and cook.
We carried all the water back. Prof and Caring Sue were busy sorting boulders according to size. Their work was to be done early and first, then they were going to tend to supper for everyone. Machine and Stephan taught Bear, Bill, and me everything we needed to know about making mud. That is what they called it—mud. It was actually mortar cement.
Stephan said, “I can’t tell you what the right mixture of powder to water is. I go by feel. It is right when it feels right. Okay?”
Machine said, “If we throw a batch of cement back at you and say there is something wrong with it, just fix it. Don’t take it personally. Don’t get pissed. Just fix it. If we say it is loose, add cement. If we say it is too stiff, add water. Don’t cry or get pissed off. Just fix it. Okay?”
At four o’clock in the afternoon there was just a big rock face. While we were gone fetching water, Stephan and Machine stacked that half-dozen corrugated cardboard boxes from Fred’s dumpster up against the rock face with the largest box on the bottom, followed by the next largest on top of it, so on and so forth until it was about twelve feet tall. After that Stephan and Machine lined the tools of their trade out in front of them. There wasn’t much. They had the bare necessities. Basically just a couple of trowels and a few other things. Prof and Caring Sue had it arranged so the few big boulders were near the front. These were intended for the base of the fireplace. The smallest boulders were the farthest away. Stephan and Machine also took a lot of time to survey the material. They pulled out a few that really caught their eye for whatever reason. These ones would have a special role to play in the structure. They gave us the go ahead to start making mud, and so we did. Well, Bear and I started making mud, but Bill was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
It was quite a miraculous thing. The hearth. I suppose fireplace is a more apt term, since the hearth is just merely a component of a larger thing called a fireplace. The term hearth is more desirable term for me though. In the word hearth is the word heart and that is what went into this thing we created. It was a thing, but it almost had soul too. It was a conglomerate of our souls. It was Stephan’s and Machine’s talent. It was Caring Sue’s brainchild.. Prof, Bear, and myself were the dutiful and proud peasants who pushed boulders and made the mud that kept it all bound together. And of course, where would we be without entertainment to soothe the help? For that we have the joker and ours happens to be lost for a king. And it turns out, he was also already drunk and fast asleep, so he wasn’t even any help with the one thing that he actually brought to the table.
Nobody knows where he got a bottle of booze. He didn’t personally buy anything at Fred’s that afternoon. He didn’t seem to have it yesterday or the day before, which is how long we had been in the bush. If Bill was in possession of this bottle prior to today, then he was showing uncharacteristic and remarkable restraint by withholding gratification for not just one but almost two full days and even longer because none of us could say for sure when the last time we stopped into a place that sold liquor. It also meant for whatever reason, Bill decided to drink it on this day, all at once, in secret, and right when we got back from Fred’s. Usually, if there was a bottle, it got passed around. When I say bottle, I don’t mean the half pint that Bear always has on him. I mean a big bottle, one that doesn’t just slide into your back pocket. It all amounted to yet another point of contention between Bill and the band.
We started building the hearth without him. Stephan and Machine would use the mud as fast as Bear and I could churn it out. They rejected a few batches in the beginning. They rejected them from both Bear and me. Neither of us was getting it right at first. Eventually we got the hang of it and it became mechanical. Prof overheard our earlier lesson on the art of making cement. Once Bear and I discovered the proper ratio of powdered cement to water, he was quick to ask us what it was and then he jotted it down in a pocketbook he always kept. It had a lot of useful odds and ends of information. No doubt he wrote down the time it took to get to Fred’s. Even though we all know it is two hours and nobody is going to forget it, he still wrote it down.
After Prof wrote down the ratio, he said, “And with a few simple strokes of the pen, we have taken cement making away from the artists and have given it back to the scientists, with whom it properly belongs.”
When Machine heard Prof say that, he got a real kick out of it. He laughed and then said, “Yeah, lets do it! A war! It is the Artists vs. the Scientists.”
Once we got got going, it all starting going up really fast. Once Bear and I figured out what the proper ratio was, we were able to get them a consistent product at a steady rate. Stephan and Machine then seemed to just get in the zone. They were familiar with their medium. They moved back and forth between the boulder pile and the hearth. They seemed to know what each other was thinking. There was a point when Machine wanted a particular piece and Stephan already knew what he was talking about and was on his way back with it. I don’t know if it was telepathy. They felt like it was. Maybe it was just like the way birds fly together in unison off of power lines and such.
The behemoth they were creating was something else. Machine and Stephan really came to understand their inventory—both the boulders and the thing that was keeping them together. When we ran out of water for making mud, Stephan noted that we were also a bag shy of what we needed to complete the project. There were two left, but we needed three to finish. Machine concurred. Machine figured we should just buy two bags to be safe. He offered that since it was so cheap, only ninety-nine cents, and the walk to get there so far, that it was worth the gamble of having too much than run the risk of running out. They had erected nine feet of a fireplace. There was still more to go. About another three feet. You could see the corrugated cardboard box jutting out of the top of the chimney.
It was dark by the time we ran out of water, but Prof got the fire roaring—a classic white man’s fire. Stephan and Machine were able to see what they were doing. There was some talk about working into the night. Bear and I would go do another water run, and then we would make them as much mud as we could until it was gone. Everybody was still energized and focused. Stephan and Machine were still inspired. They were ready to continue, but they also knew that there was a limit to how far they could even go this evening. Their limitation didn’t have to do with time or light, it had to do with matter. They were going to run out of mud.
It was decided to simply commence construction for the evening. Bear and I would still go fetch water, but no more mud was going to be made. We were going to simply have supper, enjoy the rest of the evening, get a good night’s sleep, wake up before the sun, and get a move on first thing the following day. It was right about this moment that Bill emerged from his slumber and then his tent. He was hungry, work was done for the day, and supper was about to be served. He had a seat with us around the fire.
Caring Sue said, “Piper and I are going to wake up early and get a move-on while it is still dark. Fred lives right behind the store. He’ll be up and will be happy to let us pick up two bags of cement.” There was some grumbling among the boys because they knew Fred would tie her up and talk her ear off, but Caring Sue said, “Relax! I have just the thing to stop Fred’s tongue in its tracks. I am going to show him this and tell him I need to pay for it.” She then reached behind the stoop she was sitting on and pulled out a big empty bottle of Jim Beam brand whiskey. Then she said, “You see? It works! Silence!” Then she just looked at Bill. Her look was deadly.
Bill said, “Wh-why do you have to pay for that?”
Caring Sue said, “Well somebody has to, Bill.”
Bill said, “Wh-what do you mean?”
Caring Sue said, “I am the only one who got rung up by Fred today.”
Bill said, “I had that before Fred’s. Honest to God. I know I drank a lot today, but I have had that for awhile and have been drinking a little here and there. That’s all.”
Caring Sue shook her head and mumbled softly, “I’m not going to argue with a fool, much less a drunk fool.”
Bill said, “What’s that Carin’ Sue?”
Caring Sue said, “Nothing, Bill.” Then she let it go and began talking to the group, “So Piper and I will go early in the morning. Like I said, we’ll be quick. We can be back here by mid-morning. It doesn’t really matter though because you’ll have water. You’ll have two bags of cement. You’ll have boulders. Maybe Bill will make himself useful and help Bear with the mud. At any rate, Piper and I will be back here with that third and fourth bag before you need the third.”
There was mostly nods of agreement. Bill said, “What do you mean maybe I’ll make myself useful?”
Caring Sue said, “Another thing. Piper and I are going to grab are a couple of axes. We need to get this monstrosity covered up.” She was pointing at the near complete fireplace.
Machine in particular seemed taken aback. With a puzzled look on his face, he said, “Come again, Caring Sue.”
Caring Sue said, “We got to get that thing covered up! Just look at it! It is stunning! Eye-popping! You can’t help but just sit here in awe of it! It is miraculous! It really is something to behold! And that is why we’ve got to get it covered up! It will be our downfall! We’ve got to hide our light under a bushel, lest anyone try to snuff it out before we even get to use it ourselves! It is a work of art, Machine. Stephan. It is beautiful, but we really just need it to keep our asses warm this winter!”
Stephan and Machine were beaming. They were radiating. The actual fire was roaring because there was an initial thought that we were going to keep working, but instead it served to illuminate Machine’s and Stephan’s work of art. It would be put on display for just one night because on the following day a cabin was going to be built around it.
It was good that we paused that evening to properly enjoy supper. Spirits were high and they manage to conjure up some more spirits. And so those spirits flowed. Caring Sue of all people had a half a bottle of whiskey that she brought out. Now I know I haven’t talked about this, but Caring Sue was actually a teetotaler. She drank coffee. She made medicines. Some of these medicines had the side effect of intoxication. She wasn’t so staunch that she wouldn’t take a medicine that had this side effect. Some of her potions called for small amounts of alcohol. Amounts that by themselves were not enough to intoxicate anyone. She said she had had the bottle for at least ten years. Bear looked for the date code on the bottle and indeed it said ’78’. It was fourteen years old! Everyone got a kick out of it. It wasn’t good whiskey I guess. Even when it was fresh. Some middle shelf Canadian blend, but everyone couldn’t wait to get a swig from the bottle. They were using words like ‘relic’ and ‘time capsule’ in anticipation of their experience.
Caring Sue suddenly came to a realization. She said, “Piper, were you born in 1978?” I shook my head and she said, “It is as old as Piper!”
Then Bear walked up to me with the bottle in his hand and a smile on his face. He said, “Alright fellow mudslinger, I know it is not your thing, but you’ve got to take a swig of this. You get first crack. Just take a little one. It won’t do anything to ya. It isn’t everyday that you can toast a whiskey from the year of your birth.”
I didn’t argue with him. I graciously took the bottle and had a swig. It didn’t go down well at all. My first drink.Wow! Didn’t see that coming. While my esophagus made a fuss about the firewater, Bear gave me a pat on the shoulder. He took the bottle, raised it up and said, “To Piper!” Then he took a swig and handed it to Stephan who raised it up and said, “To Piper!” He took a swig and then handed to Machine who raised it up and said, “To Piper!” He took a swig and handed it to Bill who said, “Who is Piper? Oh hell, why not? To Piper!” Bill took a gulp and handed to Prof who raised the bottle up and said, “To Piper!” He took a swig and then he offered it to Caring Sue. He shrugged and said, “You wanna? There is only a little sip left anyway.” She smiled and said without hesitation, “Of course! I’m glad you left me some!” She raised it up and said, “To Piper!” Then she finished off the bottle.
I don’t know where that came from or why, but all of a sudden I didn’t feel homeless. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel like an orphan.