In the Time Before the Rivers Freeze

The old man put out his cigarette and took a sip from his coffee. He said, “So you kids just walk the back country roads then?”

The woman smiled, nodded, and said, “That’s right. You know, I am forty-four years old.”

He said, “Aah—just a kid!” He lit up another cigarette and continued, “And you are just doing it for kicks then, eh?”

She said, “Well, not exactly. It is hard to peg a one-size-fits-all meaning for all of us. Hmm. Well, let us just say that we think life is a gift. And how do you best show that you appreciate a gift? Well, by living it. By savoring it. By trying to extract the most from your experience. Most importantly—by having experiences! Become enthralled with the mystery! You never know what awaits around the bend. And I like there always being a bend! I live for the bend!”

The man said, “And this has been going on for a long time, eh?”

She said, “Since I was a kid. A real one. I was a little older than Piper when I hit the road, but I’ve had wanderlust since I was an infant. When I was four years old, I wandered away from my mom. Then the yard. I just kept going everywhere the wind blew me. I went after everything that tickled my fancy. Before I knew it, I was somewhere completely unfamiliar to me. I hadn’t the foggiest notion because I wasn’t paying attention to things that were stationary. I was chasing butterflies or what I thought was the ice cream man off in the distance. Eventually a police officer found me, but I couldn’t help him at all as to where I actually belonged. He walked with me for a while telling me to just take him wherever I thought was home. I vividly remember my mother running up to us in tears, in an absolute panic. She picked me up and held me tight. I imagine my mom probably had some explaining to do to the police as to why a four year old could get that far away before anyone really noticed. It really wasn’t her fault though. It was me. I still have a problem sitting. I imagine I always will. Sometimes I do get a little road weary, but I can’t even comprehend the alternative. Life as a plant—with roots. Sitting around all day vegetating. For what? No, I like my wings thank you very much.”

The man cracked a smile.

The woman said, “I was starting to think that perhaps you were in a bad mood.”

The man said, “Bad mood? Well. You come to me two hours before my store is set to open. You tell me that you need two axes and two bags of cement, which is fine, but it isn’t exactly going to break the bank. Then you tell me that somebody in your party stole a bottle of booze from me. I don’t know if these are the sorts of things that are supposed to make me chipper first thing in the morning.”

The woman got up and began to excuse herself. She said, “I am so terribly sorry, Fred. I really am. I really, really am. I am so embarrassed. I am so sorry.” She then looked to me and said, “Piper, we need to get going.” Then she looked back to Fred and said, “I’m sorry, Fred. I don’t know what I was thinking except that it was weighing on me so heavily and I just wanted it off. It was all I could see. I didn’t put myself in your shoes. Meanwhile, you don’t even know that you have been injured. It could have waited. It should have waited. I am so, so sorry.”

Fred said, “Caring Sue, wait! Please don’t leave.”

I really felt bad for Caring Sue. I could see the humiliation on her face. She really did mean well. She and I had just spent two hours walking together and talking. She talked about what was on her mind and what was in her heart. She didn’t say anything about Bill. She mainly talked about the hearth. The symbolism and meaning of it to her. She raved about Machine’s and Stephan’s abilities, but equally praised the hard work of Bear and I. And finally—she talked a considerable amount about Fred. Her heart was broken for him. Of course, Fred had no way to know this. He couldn’t see how he affected her, that she went home and thought about him a good deal on the prior afternoon and into the evening. But he had no way of knowing this. He boiled it down a certain way but his formula wasn’t whole. Caring Sue wanted him to be her friend.

I did what I could to help Caring Sue get to the door. That is what it looked like she desperately wanted. She just wanted to get out the door. And I wanted to help her have that. If I couldn’t have a magic wand or a time machine, then I wanted this for her. Lets get her out the door. I didn’t like seeing Caring Sue with anything less than happiness and right now she was so far from happy. She was humiliated. Once we got outside and got away, I was going to hug her as tight as I could for a long time. It was going to be really hard for me to say, but I was also going to tell her that I loved her. I wanted her to know how hard it was for me to say such a thing. It is not something that I just casually say from time to time to just anyone. When I say it, I mean it. And I did mean it. She was always going out of her way to raise other people up. I wanted to raise her up again and help her to feel whole.

I wasn’t mad at Fred. He didn’t do anything wrong. He wasn’t coarse about it at all. If anything there was a complete lack of emotion as he said those things. He was matter of fact. He could see, at least to some degree, what I could see in her. He said, “Caring Sue, if you leave now, neither of us is going to have a good day. We’re both going to be guilt ridden and in the dumps all day. Don’t leave things like this. I do enjoy the company. I need it. I don’t want you to ever have a second thought about knocking on my door. Please turn around. There is a reason why I am irritated right now.”

Caring Sue had been hearing him out—as she continue to make her way toward the door. She wasn’t leaving because of any degree of anger. She wanted to hear Fred, but she thought she was trespassing. That she didn’t want to do, but when he said that last bit, he then had her undivided attention. She said, “What is it?”

Fred said, “First, you and Piper come back in and have some more coffee and sit for awhile. We’re going to make some lemonade, so to speak. You understand?” Caring Sue shook her head and Fred said, “Good. You are going to tell me about yourself. You listened so intently last evening as I rambled on and wept, but you hardly said anything about yourself.”

So we had a seat at the table and Fred topped off our cups. He went to the refrigerator and grabbed a pint of cream and a jar of sugar. He set it down in the center of the table. He said, “I usually drink mine black, but I have this for my guests. I’d offer you breakfast, but I am not much of a cook. Wish I was. I’ve got direct access to a grocer where everything is always fresh.

Caring Sue said, “What would you like for breakfast, Fred?”

Fred said, “If we were in a diner with a full menu in front of us?” She shook her head. “I call it a country omelet. It is ham, green pepper, mushroom, onion, and cheddar. Naturally, I’d get a side of hash-browns and some toast.”

Caring Sue said, “Would you like me to whip you up an omelet, hash browns, and some toast, Fred?”

Fred asked, “Would you?”

Caring Sue said, “Sure. While I get going, why don’t you tell me why you were irritated earlier.”

Fred seemed to gasp, but it was apparently for no reason, then he said, “Oh yeah. Well. You might think this is kind of crazy. And I don’t really care if you think it is crazy. Or if you think I am crazy. I am about all used up anyway. I got a little left yet. I don’t know how much. The Lord knows. Well. So. Anyway. It is just that. Sometimes. In the morning. If I slept well and had favorable dreams. I mean dreams. A night chock full of dreams. It has been that way a lot lately. Especially since she passed. Well. I don’t know how to say this because what I am talking about seems kind of supernatural. I have been having a busy dream life of late. I have been sleeping good. And sometimes when I wake up it comes with me into the waking world.”

As Caring Sue looked through cupboards she said, “What comes with you into the waking world, Fred?”

Fred said, “What are you looking for, hon?”

Caring Sue said, “I actually don’t want you to tell me where it is. I want to look through every cupboard and just know where everything is. This way I don’t have to keep asking you. I know it sounds weird but that is the way I am. Some say I am a bit of a control freak. I have the grader for the potatoes and the cheddar. I’ve got a couple of pans. Okay Fred, what comes with you into the waking world? You were just about to answer.”

Fred said, “The dream world. The spirit world. The world that precedes this one and that will still exist when this one has vanished. The world where our souls came from and where they all will eventually return. The Source. I meet Delores in my dreams, not every night, not even every week, but often enough. And sometimes I swear she comes back with me to this world for a few hours. She stays while I drink my coffee, smoke, and read. I can feel her. I know it. She is here, I know my world when Delores is a part of it and I know my world when she is not. Sometimes she is here. I’m eighty five years old. I’m not trying to sell a book. I am just trying to explain to you why I got irritated with you this morning. However, I must say that I did not have a magical rendezvous with Delores in my dreams last night. Not one that I recall anyway. Nonetheless, the mornings are my special time. I reflect. I contemplate. I pray. I don’t know if you believe in God, but I certainly do. And so, even if I am not communing with the spirit of my wife, I still enjoy the time to myself, and with God. It is the time when I feel almost whole, when I don’t need to be carried.”

Caring Sue stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room. She said, “Duly noted, Fred. I am sorry that I intruded during your sacred time. I will not knock before the store opens unless it is an emergency.”

Fred pointed to her and said, “You better not hesitate!”

Caring Sue smiled, “I won’t. If it is an emergency.”

Fred said, “And I am sorry if I hurt you this morning, young lady. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

Caring Sue then went to the kitchen and put Fred’s plate together. She came back and said, “I’m okay Fred. I’m glad I stayed. We cleared the air and established some boundaries. I don’t mind boundaries.”

Fred raised his glass of orange juice and said, “All before 8am too. It really is something that would have eaten us up all day, don’t you know, and it was just a simple misunderstanding.”

She put the plate down in front of him and said, “Indeed, Fred. Well, here you are. Breakfast is served. Let me grab you some salt and pepper because I didn’t season anything at all. I don’t know what your dietary restrictions are.”

Fred wasn’t even listening because he was awestruck, and rightfully so. It looked delicious. Picture perfect. He was full of praise and gratitude. He was savoring every bite and making various noises to indicate how much he was enjoying himself. He said, “Caring Sue, Piper—help yourselves! Have an omelet!”

Caring Sue topped off Fred’s coffee mug, then her own, and then mine. As she did mine she said, “Go ahead, Piper. Make an omelet. There are still plenty of scraps leftover from Fred’s . There are still plenty of hash browns there too. I’ll go after you.” She put the carafe back on the plate and sat at the table next to Fred, so I got up and fixed myself breakfast.

Fred looked to Caring Sue and between bites he said, “Do you guys ever hitchhike?”

She very immediately said, “No. Never. Rarely.”

He said with a mouthful, “Which is it?”

She said, “Rarely. Well, first of all—there is seven of us. It is hard to hitch a ride for that many people. We have negotiated rides before, but we mainly walk. It isn’t really spoken, but I guess an unwritten rule that we live by is—what’s the hurry? You miss a lot when you go zooming by a place. We don’t miss anything.”

Fred smiled and said, “You kids really do live in the moment, eh?”

Caring Sue shrugged, “I don’t think about it like that, Fred. I think I am just living. Plain and simple.”

Fred said, “Hey, I’m not judging you or anything.”

Caring Sue said, “Oh, I didn’t think you were and to be honest I am perfectly comfortable being judged. I see it everyday. I used to feel it everyday too, but now I am callous to it or it is just sensory adaptation. But you know what, Fred? It doesn’t matter. I am only going to be in your life for a few more moments, then I will fly away. I am going to fly away from you like I have everyone else. It doesn’t mean I won’t be sad our succumb to feelings of nostalgia later on, but it is just the way it is. There is a big world out there and there is a lot to see and I don’t have a lot of time. I went to the doctor the other day and you know what he told me?”

Though he tried with all he could muster, Fred just couldn’t hold back his smile, he said, “What did he tell you, darling?”

Caring Sue replied, “He came in and said, I’ve got bad news for you—you’re dying.”

He said, “Is that right?”

She said, “Yeah he said I only have forty years left if I am lucky. So you see Fred, that is not a lot of time especially when you’re trying to savor the omelet called life.”

Fred looked up and smiled. He said, “It is really good. I’m trying to think of the last time I had an omelet this good. It certainly wasn’t from Delores!” Caring Sue looked to him startled with wide eyes. Fred said, “Oh, it wasn’t a big secret. Delores knew it. She was a horrible cook. She even made fun of it herself for it. Even if she were a good cook, our marriage couldn’t have been any happier.”

Caring Sue took her right hand and gripped his left and squeezing it she gave Fred a soft smile. Fred said, “I sure do miss her. Christmas is coming. I wish I could just skip it. It is not the same. Nothing is the same. I’m at the end of the line here with this life. I’ve got a frail and fragile body that is still holding on, for whatever reason, but it isn’t that much longer. I lived life a certain way. It was a lifestyle that was agreeable to most people. Nobody could be offended by it at least. I don’t know if it was the right life or not. I know Delores was right choice. That much I know. But maybe Delores and I should have been a little more footloose and fancy free. At least looked around a little bit more. Maybe try a few different things. We picked security. We both were worker bees. I think most people pick security. You and your family have picked freedom. You probably think I am uptight, eh?”

Caring Sue said, “Of course not, Fred.”

Fred said, “You’re not a dope smoker are ya?”

I didn’t see that one coming. It was a rather off-base question, to say the least, but Caring Sue didn’t miss a beat. She said, “No Fred, I never touch the stuff.” It was the truth too. These days it was going on around her almost all the time, since Bear’s fortuitous encounter with Mike and Kate.

Fred looked across the table to me. I knew what was coming. He said, “How about you, Piper? I know you are still young yet and I know you are sitting here next to your mom, but you are smart enough to know that nothing good comes from smoking dope, right?”

I shook my head and said, “Yes, sir. I won’t even smoke cigarettes and I’m not just saying that cause my mother is sitting here.”

I looked over to Caring Sue. She was smiling. Fred thought she was smiling out of pride, but we actually know why she was smiling. Fred nodded in agreement. He said, “That is good. The whole country is going to pot. I hate dope.” He pulled a cigarette from his pack, lit it, and said, “You say you folks came up from Arkansas, eh. You were mining for diamonds, did I hear that right?”

Caring Sue said, “That is right, Fred. We lived in the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Have you ever heard of it?” Fred shook his head. She continued, “No? Well it is just amazing, Fred! I guess some 95 million years ago there was an active volcano on the site, but it became inactive, then extinct, and then over many millions of years the weather completely eroded it away—just sanded it right down so it is now flush with the Earth. When it was active, magma brought the diamonds and other gemstones up closer to the surface. As the mount eroded, some where washed away to places nearby, but most remained at the place where the volcano once stood either at the surface or just below it. Since it is owned by the people of Arkansas, you can buy a pass and camp and mine as much as you want. You can dig and whatever you find you are free to take, no matter the value. The park will even go through with a deep-earth plow from time to time to churn up more possibilities for the tourists.”

Fred said, “Is that right?”

Caring Sue said, “Yeah, but we never found anything for the record books. We pulled out our fair share of smaller diamonds. Most of them were less than a carat. We sold all of those. We actually still have three diamonds. They were the largest we ever pulled. Each of them is well over a carat, but not quite two carats. We figured they were as good as any savings account as they sat.” She pulled a small clothe satchel from her bag and emptied it onto the table. There were then six wads of tissue laying on the table. She opened each of them and said, “We also kept the best piece of amethyst, the best piece of garnet, and the best piece of agate we found. Perhaps that was foolish of us. There were many shops around the park that would buy your finds. They were competing with one another and of course they all claimed to be paying top dollar. When you start moving to other parts of the country, then pricing the semi-precious gemstones becomes not so obvious. So I guess they are just keepsakes for our time spent there. The diamonds though, well we can just take those to a jeweler—one that will buy raw uncut rocks.”

Fred looked the gemstones over and said, “Huh. That is something. How long were you at it—I mean you, your husband, and your boys?”

Caring Sue said, “Almost two years in all.”

I looked to Caring Sue. She could feel my eyes. She glanced at me, but then her eyes went back to Fred. She was not a deceitful person. There must be a reason why she was not correcting him.

Fred said, “Would you say it was profitable? I mean, I’m not asking you to tell me how much you made last year. But you guys lived well with this as your only source of income?”

She said, “Well Fred, I’m sure you and I have very different notions of what constitutes a decent living. It all goes back to what we were talking about before. When we woke up in Arkansas, we never knew what the day would bring. It might be famine, It might be fortune. We had days of plentiful bounty and many days where we came up empty. Most of the time, it was somewhere in between. This might sound kind of strange to you Fred, but we don’t fuss about money much. We know you need it and we know you can’t get by without it, but people always think they need more than they actually need. Suffice it to say that we earn enough to more than meet our needs. We even buy some of our wants, but we also save too. Nobody in our clan goes to bed on an empty stomach, or is ever for want of a drink, or sleeps out in the cold, or is neglected prompt medical attention when needed. We enjoyed our life in Arkansas very much. The climate was agreeable. Winters were mild. We left because we can only stay at a place for so long before we get restless and bored. Sensory adaptation. If you stare at a thing long enough, you will no longer be able to see it.”

Fred said with an ever so slight tinge of begrudge, “And now you have made your way to Michigan to quench your boredom. Don’t tell me that you all have come all this way to mine for copper?”

She said, “Has your lovely part of the world been inundated by people looking to mine copper, Fred?”

He shook his head, “Heavens no! I have never heard such a thing! You know copper is only about a buck a pound, right? The price they’re paying is probably well below half that.”

Caring Sue said, “I understand Copper Country Michigan is the only place on Earth where pure copper nuggets can be had. Everything else on Earth is ore and isn’t necessarily pleasing to look at.”

Fred said, “Well, that probably was true at one time. It was probably true for the Indians and the first French settlers. I heard some tall tales as a child from the elder adults as I was growing up. Incidentally, it is now my responsibility to pass these tall tales onto my grandchildren and great grandchildren. I even have a great, great grand-daughter, if you can believe that. I have been told it was much like what you were talking about down there in Arkansas—just bend down and pick it up. Take a few more steps, then bend down and pick it up—big beautiful chunks of copper. I guess the Indians saw it for centuries and were none too impressed. So they just left it sitting there for the most part. Imagine that. But when the French arrived, they went ahead and vacuumed it all up, so to speak. I am sorry to tell you but you’re probably about three hundred and fifty years too late.” He then picked up his soft-pack of Winston’s, giving the pack a jolt, he pulled the one that inertia had halfway ejected from the pack, put it in his mouth, struck a match, and lit it.

Caring Sue seemed to be processing what she was hearing. She nodded gently as she watched Fred prepare his smoke.

Fred exhaled and took a sip from his coffee cup. He said, “There actually still is a copper mine up and running here in the UP.”

Caring Sue exclaimed, “Is there?”

Fred said, “Yeah, the White Pine Mine. It is damn near all the way to Wisconsin though. I guess it is Copper Country still. I don’t know. It isn’t what you’re talking about though. It is low grade ore. Needs a lot of processing. Every so often there is a headline concerning them. I guess they are going bankrupt.”

Caring Sue wasn’t getting good news, but she didn’t seem detoured either. To the contrary, she seemed to be pondering what to ask this local source of information. She knew it wasn’t about having all the right answers, rather it was all about asking the right questions. Fred spoke before she could even formulate a question though. He said, “I do think you can find what you are looking for though.”

Caring Sue had perked up suddenly and said, “You do? How? And more importantly, what are we looking for?”

Fred smiled and said, “You are seeking adventure and it doesn’t hurt to pick up a few bucks along the way. Am I right?”

She nodded and said, “Sounds about right.”

He said, “Well, I think you could find both of them. The adventure will come easy, but you will have to work for the copper. There are a lot of abandoned copper mines all up and down the Keweenaw Peninsula. Hundreds, thousands, who knows? They’ve been closed since at least the sixties. Some of them before that. The mines didn’t close because they ran out of copper. They closed because they weren’t making a profit. I’m sure every sealed up mine has got at least one vein of pure copper in her some where. The big boys don’t care about it. It just isn’t worth their time, but now a family, working together, living on the cheap, well they might be able to get a little copper at rock bottom prices. So if you went down into some of those mines with a pickax and a hammer, you might strike at a wall and expose a vein of pure copper. It might take you a while to find it, but I have no doubts that you could find it. It won’t get you rich, but you don’t care about that, eh?”

Caring Sue laughed and said, “No!”

Fred said, “Well now you just got to find yourself a land owner with a capped mine who wouldn’t mind letting you in their mine for a cut of the take. I don’t imagine that would be too difficult.”

She said, “No?”

He shook his head and said, “No. What does a claim owner have to loose? If the mine has been inactive for thirty or forty years—why not? There will be a contract. The claim owner will want to protect themselves from an injury lawsuit and the like.” Fred put out his cigarette and then said, “Well, why don’t we head over to the store, eh? It doesn’t open for another hour yet, but I can get you the things you need, so you can get you on your way.”

We went in the backdoor of store. There was only a small breeze way that separated his house from the store. He turned on the lights and went to the front of the store and we went about grabbing what we needed. We each grabbed a bag of cement and I carried the two axes after Caring Sue decided which two she wanted. She told me cheap was not always better as she made her choice. After that, she grabbed a twenty foot by twenty foot blue plastic tarp. At the register she said, “Fred, there is also the issue of the pint of Jim Beam.”

Fred said, “First, let me check the shelf.” He walked down to where the Jim Beam was set out. He turned to Caring Sue and said, “Well now that you say something, there is an open spot where a bottle once stood. That is not like me or any of my employees. They are trained, they know that when they pull something off the shelf that is behind the counter, they must immediately pull the remaining stock forward. Always. It only takes a brief moment, but it saves a lot of time in the end. This is obviously something I could never ask of a customer, but I certainly can ask this of my employees and I do. It is actually a pet peeve of mine. I have my cashiers out in the aisles facing items and rotating stock if there isn’t someone to wait on.”

Fred then pulled the four remaining bottles off the shelf and brought them over to the register. He said, “Can I see that empty bottle, Carin’ Sue? She handed over the bottle. He examined it and then he examined the ones he had yet to sell. He looked up and said, “Same lot code. Well. I’m sorry Carin’ Sue, but it does look like your son stole from me. Unless he picked it up from a store that just so happened to get a case from the same lot. The code changes each shift.”

She said, “I never had any doubts that he stole from you. I’m sorry, Fred. I am so embarrassed. He isn’t my son, by the way. He is a friend of one of my boys and apparently not a very good one. Can you please look over the shelf and tell me if you notice anything else missing?”

Fred left and after a careful examination he came back and said, “It looks like a bottle of Absolut Vodka is missing too.”

Caring Sue was crestfallen. She offered to pay, but Fred wouldn’t have any of it. She insisted. Still, Fred said no. Then she told him that she would tell Bill that he wasn’t allowed to come onto his property anymore, but Fred wouldn’t have any of that either. He said, “If he isn’t allowed into my store, then how am I going to collect the debt he has with me?” Fred calculated the cost of the two items and gave the grand total to Caring Sue which she said she would relay to Bill.

I put both of the axes in my belt so the weight of the ax heads was at my waist and the handles just dangled along side my legs. I also carried the tarp and we each carried a bag of cement.

As we were walking along Caring Sue said, “I’m kind of paranoid right now.”

I said, “Really? How so? Why?”

She said, “I don’t know. I am just worried suddenly. What if the police stop us and want to know what we’re doing with the axes and the cement? What if somebody sees us walk into the woods?”

I said, “I don’t know! If you yourself are calling it paranoia, then you know it is a irrational fear, so stop thinking about it.”

She said, “I know. You’re right. It is not that easy though. It is almost like some of Bear’s reefer got into me somehow.”

I said, “Caring Sue, you’re supposed to be the strong one. You’re stronger than any of us. If you’re struggling, where does that put us?”

She said, “I am not perfect, Piper. I have my moments.”

I said, “I know. Everybody does. Maybe that is what you need to tell yourself—you’re just having a moment. It will pass.”

I looked to her and she nodded. She was breathing deeply and exhaling slowly. She wasn’t talking anymore. It was almost like she was doing deep breathing like they do in childbirth except she wasn’t coping with pain, she seemed to be coping with stress.

I was getting kind of worried. I asked, “Did Fred freak you out?” I could see from the look on her face that she was considering the question, then I realized some clarification might be in order, so I said, “I mean after we got past the awkward start to the morning that is.”

She said, “Maybe a little. It isn’t that he freaked me out, it is that he strikes me as a person with a narrow mind. You can have the biggest heart in the world, but if you’ve got a mind that is not open, the love isn’t going to go anywhere. So Fred thinks that we are a nuclear family and I think it is in our best interest to let him think that. Wow. I do feel better talking. Hmm. So I didn’t lie to him. I just didn’t correct him when he revealed to me his assumptions.”

I said, “I know.”

Then we walked on for a while before something occurred to me. I said suddenly, “Besides, who are you defending yourself to—me? I’m the biggest story teller there ever was! I don’t only lie by omission, I just make shit up!”

She laughed and suddenly without either of us realizing it, we were walking carefree again. We arrived at our nameless creek. We stopped in the road and looked in each direction. If there was a vehicle at all visible in either direction, we didn’t dare move. This wasn’t a result of Caring Sue’s paranoid episode, this was just standard operating procedure. No one could ever see us make that deviation off the beaten path and into the woods. We didn’t want to rouse anyone’s curiosity, let alone suspicion.

When we got back, they were waiting on us. No one was upset. They were enjoying themselves with coffee and cigarettes. They started breakfast without us, but left us some, which was good, except we already had breakfast. Though there was no injury before, this was certainly an insult. In a vacuum it did look bad, but then Caring Sue explained how things began on a sour note and how she had to fix things and then what she discovered about Fred in the process. Then she told everyone what Fred said about copper mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula which everyone seemed to think was very good news. They began working up a rough sketch of the coming summer. They planned on spending next winter holed up in a mine—their mine.

Caring Sue said, “Bottom-line though, Fred can’t really be trusted. He is a nice enough old man, but if he knew half the mischief you boys are into, he’d turn on us in a heartbeat, and then he’d turn us in. Just like that. So we are going to use his store in the coming weeks to buy supplies we need to get us through the winter. We could make a trip everyday for the next two weeks and probably have everything we’ll need as far as getting and storing the canned goods, the rice, the pasta, things like that. Oh! Also, he thinks we are a family, I mean a nuclear one, and we’re just going to go ahead and let him think that. Except Bill! He thinks you are a friend of the family. I wouldn’t own you as family. And you owe him sixteen dollars and fifty three cents for the booze you stole.”

Bill said, “That is a hell of a lot of money for one bottle of Jim Beam!”

Caring Sue said, “Well you didn’t take into account the bottle of vodka, did you?”

He said, “What bottle of vodka?”

She said, “The bottle of Absolut you put in your guitar case along with the whiskey. He’s got video camera’s, Bill. We saw the whole thing.”

Bill said, “Well, I guess I can’t ever go back to that store now can I?”

Caring Sue shook her head in disgust and then walked away from the fire. She went to her tent, retrieved a small bag, and then moved in the direction of the creek.

With all of the necessary supplies on hand, the fireplace was completed just a little past noon. The eighth bag wasn’t necessary after all, but use was made of it. The next few hours we gathered as much water as we could from the creek and doused our new fireplace in it. Machine said that concrete cures by exposure to water not air. In fact, air was not necessarily a good thing. So we bathed this thing—even the interior of the chimney the best we could. For quite some time actually above and beyond this day.

After the fireplace was doused, we sat in the late afternoon sun and admired it. Of course, we were still using our external campfire. The fireplace really was a work of art and we admired it as such. It had no functional purpose for the first few weeks of its existence. It was just art. The Department of Natural Resources would call it vandalism and wanton destruction of Federal property. I suppose it was that too.

We ate supper and after that Prof laid down the plan for our cabin. I guess carpentry was his forte or at least the responsibility fell to him. He talked about the type and number of trees we would need for the cabin. They were all going to be pine. He figured we would need thirty young trees. He stood at the place where the logs would rest on the ground and then pointed to the near top of the rock face where the other end of the log would rest. All our cabin was really going to effectively be was a roof wedged between a rock and the earth. So each log was actually just a beam.

We did start felling trees that evening. His vision was an inspiration and everyone got anxious to see it through. We felled a half dozen trees that night and the next day we took another two and half dozen. Much to our surprise, Bill was present for all the felling of the trees and was even an eager ax. We tried to cut the trees close to the earth—even below the soil line if it was feasible. Then we’d fill it in with dirt and sprinkle some needles over it. We were trying to hide our crime, but we did exercise some decency though. I mean as a unit. Caring Sue took care of it mostly. She gathered together about one hundred pine cones from an elder version of the same species of pine that we were cutting down. She put them in a pile on the forest floor and buried them under some dead wood, dry needles, and leaves that she had accumulated from the vicinity. She then set the pile on fire and let it burn for a while before she spread it out and allowed the fire to just die down on its own. In the following weeks she would plant the seeds from the burnt cones a few at a time.

We stripped the three dozen pines that we harvested of their limbs, then we used every last one of them to thatch the roof, and then some. We harvested some more limbs from living pines to complete the job. It didn’t harm those trees. We then used that twenty by twenty tarp to gather big sections of moss from the forest floor. This was probably the most time consuming part of our of our cabin build. We needed a lot and it took time to find the sources. We probably spent a week in all gathering moss. It was a pretty neat set-up. We were very careful not to disrupt it too much because all we really wanted to do was transplant it. The moss needed the rain and we were all too happy to just let the moss have it. Bill didn’t harvest any moss for us—as was to be expected. We figured he was hip to felling trees because there was action in that. Above all, Bill always sought action. Despite his inaction with the moss collecting, he did put on a show later that evening touting how hard he had worked that day—as was to be expected. Nobody was buying it except for maybe Bill. He said he had to work alone so he went off on his own, but he went off on his own without a tarp, sheet, or anything. We knew it was a rouse. We didn’t come across his hideout this time, but we all knew what standard operating procedure was for Bill. So the six of us worked from the early morning until a few hours before sundown every day.

We did awaken with the sun every day for the most part, but it always took us a couple of hours to get going. I never minded. It was part of the day that I actually really enjoyed. There was no drinking and drugging in the early morning. Well, sometimes the boys would smoke a joint, but Bear had become stingy of late whenever Bill was around. He didn’t want to share with Bill anymore at all. But for the most part, breakfast was all of us together, drinking coffee, eating breakfast, and talking. Like I said, it was always such fun.

Bill was even tolerable in these early morning sessions. For all his faults in character, he was a natural born entertainer. He could lighten your mood with his antics and jokes. You could understand why crowds could love him and adore him and as long as they never get to know him off the stage, their adoration would remain steady. He was a good story teller and his rather outrageous persona was amusing and entertaining. There was always a lot of laughter and it was like everyone would forget what he had done, or rather not done, the days prior. Or maybe it was that we thought that this new day was going to be different this time. Of course, it never was different with Bill. We’d love him for who he was to start the day, but as soon as breakfast was over, Bill would disappear on the work days, and everyone would resume resenting him.

Despite Bill, we had accumulated plenty of moss and it really took hold immediately and began spreading within a couple of weeks. It was really something to behold. It all merged together into one and became one big piece of moss, just a seamless blanket of moss. Of course, there were some imperfections here and there, but it was still so neat on so many levels. It would have camouflaged our shelter except for the fact that it was literally awesome. The word ‘awesome’ has been used to such an extent in the last half-century or so that it really has lost all of its original meaning. It is a trite word now—awesome. However, I do mean that the moss field was capable of inspiring awe. If you happened upon in it, in the wilderness, it would catch your eye, your jaw would drop, you would not be able to look away, and you would be drawn toward it. It really wasn’t the way moss actually grew.

“This is exactly why we need to cover it up!” Caring Sue proclaimed.

Prof said, “Come on now! Not this too! It is fine! Lets just leave it be! No one is going to wander down that creek and happen upon us. Some leaves are going to fall on it, and then snow.”

She said, “Exactly.”

Prof seemed confused. He shrugged and said, “I’m not following.”

She said, “I want us to take the tarp and drag leaves here and dump them from atop the rock face onto our roof. It isn’t going to hurt the moss and it would be more insulation. Most of the oaks are done shedding. We could spend a few days just gathering leaves and dumping them. If we could get a six foot layer of leaves atop our roof…”

Bear interjected, “Good lord!”

Caring Sue said, “I know it is a lot Bear, but I think you’ll be grateful this winter when we’re all cozy and warm by the fire and we find that a little dab will do ya as far as firewood goes.”

He said, “You think?”

She shook her head and said, “Oh yeah. Think about it. The longer it takes for the heat to permeate the barrier we’ve made around the fire, the longer it will be with us, right?”

Prof eventually saw the usefulness of it, as did everyone else and it was agreed that we would collect leaves. It wasn’t as if anyone was interested in remaining idle—aside from Bill, of course. We all knew idle-time aplenty was coming. It was called ‘winter’ and because we feared it so our days that autumn were full of chores to insure that we could make it through alive. It was the end of October when they had the conversation about using leaves as insulation. It was the end of September when we finished our cabin and had assembled together as much moss as we were going to gather. In that month between, we were tying up the loose ends of our cabin, we were gathering wood, and supplies from Fred’s.

Our biggest priority, after having made a half a dozen or so trips up the creek without proper footwear, was actually getting some proper footwear. It turns out, there was a military surplus store in Escanaba, Michigan. Prof figured it to be only about a thirty or forty mile walk for us. We couldn’t believe our fortune. As I’m sure you’re aware a military surplus store is not exactly commonplace. There are many, many people in Michigan who have to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles just to find one and some of these people are not nearly as isolated and off the grid as we were. We didn’t even think the Upper Peninsula would have one, let alone one right in our backyard. The UP actually had two of them. Same owner—Biff. It was the first thing we did after getting the cabin built. Caring Sue kept her knowledge of the surplus store under wraps. She had to. She saw it in the phone book the first day she had it. It never occurred to any of us to ask what was in the phone book or even ask to look at it. She immediately hid it away—out of sight, out of mind until she was ready to mobilize the troops. I wondered what she would have done if we would have asked. She knew as soon as she made mention of it, we were going to whip ourselves into a frenzy, and understandably so. We all needed some sort of foot gear that would allow us the wade water—there was that, yes. The necessity. But you also have to keep in mind—it was a freaking military surplus store! Boys will be boys and Caring Sue knew that, so she waited until the cabin was near complete, then she let the cat out of the bag.

It was a two day trip to Escanaba. It was about a nine hour walk each way, but it was too much to round trip it in one day, so we split it up into two days. This meant there was a lot of leeway and we could actually spend a few hours in Escanaba or anywhere in between for that matter. We arrived on the edge of town and the first thing we saw was a truck stop. We all bought a nice long hot shower. Laundry was going to be done the following day. We did launder our clothes with creek water, but after awhile a good machine washing was certainly called for.

As we were nearing the army surplus store, we were all talking about what we hoped to see, and what we wanted to buy. Well, not so much Stephan. Stephan was a ardent pacifist. I guess that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but he really loathed violence of any sort. War games were not fun to him. But it wasn’t all fun and games for us either. Aside from the boots, there would be stuff that would be useful this winter. I think we all had an experience of what a military surplus store can be growing up. I had been to one in Pontiac, Michigan when I was much younger.

I knew exactly what they were talking about when they described their past experiences and what they saw—though their experience would have been in the seventies, whereas mine was a decade later in the eighties. And we all grew up in vastly different parts of the country too. Yet I think the vision was one in the same among us all. So let me tell you about this place in Escanaba—it wasn’t that. It wasn’t a warehouse filled to the brim with gas masks and drilled-out grenades that were sold as paper weights. It really didn’t have much as far as novelty items go at all. There were a few, but this shop was set up to provide for need. Bear and Machine started eyeing the pellet guns. They were getting ready to go in on a rifle together, but they purchased a pump-action pistol instead and plenty of brass pellets. They thought about buying a standard bow and some arrows, but they didn’t want to get stopped and get questioned by the police. It would be fine, if someone in our clan had a hunting license, but as I’ve said before, there wasn’t a one of us that even had a driver’s license.

Caring Sue saw to it that we each had a pair of knee-high rubber boots that fit. They went on right over our regular shoes or boots and they actually went up and over our knees too, even on Prof and Stephen who were a bit taller. Each pair cost anywhere between fourteen ninety-nine and nineteen ninety-nine. The total bill was about a hundred and twenty five dollars, but Caring Sue didn’t bat an eye. She bought all seven pair with money from the group coffer. We now all could comfortably walk in water. All winter really. Our feet might get cold, but as long as they stay dry we can negotiate with the creek. The water could even get deeper for all we cared. Suddenly everyone seemed to change their mind about our new home. They were now ecstatic about it and couldn’t wait to get to the creek so we could walk in it. I have to admit that I felt that way too. Caring Sue had vision. She could see things before anyone else.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose we did everything a little backwards. Or we acted on an extraordinary amount of faith. I don’t know which. We built the place because we couldn’t argue with a rock. We had no idea there was an army surplus store a half day’s walk away from that rock that would give us the thing we needed to make this place accessible. Plus, it was at a rock-bottom prices. Like I said, it was sheer luck or we are blessed and I don’t know which. Furthermore, we built our cabin even before we knew where the river was, even before we knew if there was actually a river. We didn’t have a map of the actual National Forest. Our map showed us there was a National Forest, but nothing as far markers in the interior of it. Stephan proclaimed that it was divine, but not the way you’re thinking. Brother Stephan proclaimed that the rock was speaking to us. He told us that the rock was actually one of our spirit guides and that it was more than happy to guide us through the winter. After all, it has been through millions of them after. So I guess we had that going for us.

I would admit that the rock face was a pretty impressive on the face of it, but I wouldn’t go so far as to ascribe any supernatural powers to it. Now if you told me Jesus guided us toward this place because he loved us, you wouldn’t find any argument from me. I wasn’t going to say anything to Brother Stephan—to each their own I figured. But Bear Bacchus was something and someone altogether different. He didn’t believe for one minute that that rock was a conscious being, but he wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity. He said, “Hey Stephan! Why don’t you bust out that peyote on the winter solstice and we’ll commune with our rock guide? What do ya say?”

Stephan smiled and said, “That sounds perfect Bear, even though I know you’re not being sincere. The thing is, I don’t have ’em anymore.”

Bear said, “What? When did you find the time without us ever noticing?”

He said, “I didn’t take ’em. They got taken from me.”

Bear said, “By whom?”

Stephan said, “I don’t know. It wasn’t long after we talked about it last that I went into my satchel where they were stored looking for a talisman. I noticed they were gone. So too were the mushrooms. Everything else was still there. I had some sage. A few ruins. Some crystals and other gemstones. Nothing precious. But those two things were missing.”

Bear looked Stephan right in the eye and said as sincere as he could, “You know I wouldn’t ever do that to you, right? You didn’t even have to share them with me at all if you didn’t want to. I wouldn’t of cared. There would have been no hard feelings. I was only joking with you.”

Stephan cut him off saying, “Bear, I never thought for a second it was you. I know where we stand. The person who took them was going to get their fair share, but apparently that wasn’t enough—they wanted them all.”

Bear just shook his head. He got it. That could have been the end of it, but after a few moments, Bear looked directly at Caring Sue, “Can’t you see? Everybody in this cabin knows who stole the peyote. The person is in this cabin right now and he doesn’t care that we all know. He is sitting there pretending to sleep. It is not the first time he has stolen from us and it won’t be the last.” Then he got up and began putting on his layers of clothes. Then he said, “I know. I know. No there isn’t any proof! Just circumstantial evidence!” He said this as he was storming out of the cabin. He came back much later that night with a bottle of booze. It was half gone. He had a receipt showing he paid for Fred for it and he also took care of Bill’s debt. He was way more drunk than his usual nightly buzz.

Caring Sue was distraught over his whole episode. She didn’t fault Bear. She understood why he was so upset. Everybody was upset to some degree. Well, except for Bill, of course. I didn’t fault Bear either although my heart did ache for Caring Sue. He put it all on her, as if it were her fault that Bill was still with us, but it really wasn’t her call. We were a democracy, a democracy of seven. It was going to take an unanimous vote, or rather unanimous action to ouster one of us from the union. But I guess she became the lightning rod because of who she was to all of us. She wasn’t the head of our clan. She wasn’t the leader. Yet, she had a knack for managing, so she managed us most of time. She just naturally knew how to take the reins and make order from chaos. She kept us on track and focused. Nobody else was going to do it. We would just be a wandering, meandering, mess without her. She wasn’t our boss, nor was she ever bossy. She certainly could be stern as I have already demonstrated, but she never tried to control something she knew she had no control over. She knew when to let go.

Machine crawled his way over to Bear. Bear was laid back on his bed sheets. Machine crawled in next to him. I could see by the look on Stephan’s face whose spot was next to Bear’s that Machine was up to some sort of play. Stephan was smiling. Nothing really happened though. Machine just got really close to his head and then said, “Psst, Bear!” Except it was kind of loud. It certainly wasn’t a whisper.

Bear jolted awake, “Yeah! What?”

Machine asked, “You mind if I have a couple of tugs of your bottle?”

Bear said, “Oh. Sure. Here. Help yourself. Have the rest.” He then went back to passing out and Machine crawled in reverse to get back to his spot. He got there, unscrewed the top, and took a sip. Then Bear awoke and said, “Why don’t you just pass it around? Just don’t let…you know who have any.” But everybody was pretty nestled in and ready to expire for the evening anyway, so he just drank by himself while he read by candlelight.

I wasn’t going to be able to sleep and a drink wasn’t going to help. I had something nagging on my mind and I had to do something about it. I didn’t know how it was going to go over though. So I just got up and crawled across the front of the fireplace to the end of Caring Sue’s bedding area. She watched me move toward her. When I got there, she said with a shake of the head, “What is going on, Piper?”

I said, “I was just wondering if you needed a hug?”

She immediately got to her knees and put her arms around me. Then she started crying uncontrollably. It was enough to wake Prof up. I held her for quite some time while she cried. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I pulled away and looked. It was Stephan. He said, “Can I get in on that action?” Caring Sue laughed through the tears. So I crawled back to my spot. After Stephan was done, Machine made his way over and held her as well.

Prof sat up and asked, “Everything, okay?”

She smiled, shook her head, wiped away a few tears and said, “Yeah.” Then she laid down and after quite some time, she said, “Thanks, boys.”

The next day we all put on our rubber boots and we went up the creek to explore it further. The water was a moot point. It was great! We rather quickly discovered that there was indeed a river and it wasn’t too far away either—a ten minute walk up the creek. We had managed to set up camp at a place that was close to the river, but not so close that anyone would wander up the creek and happen upon us. Stephan, of course, attributed it to our spirit guide, the rock, which spoke to us telling us what to do.

Whether it was Jesus, luck, or Stephan’s rock, we really were set up quite well for the winter. In the days following for almost a month, we went back to Escanaba a few more times. There was a Salvation Army there. I already told you a story about it actually. That is where we got all of our books for the winter. We also made almost daily trips to Fred’s. We had been making sporadic trips here and there and we always made the most of the trip when we went. We could only carry so much and Fred could only stock so much of any given thing for that matter. We were an anomaly to him. He didn’t expect us and so he wasn’t prepared. We might need a four month’s supply of flour, but that might be all Fred would order for the whole year under normal circumstances and he did have other customers. However, if we cleared a shelf or almost cleared a shelf, Fred and his employees would order more. Caring Sue would make requests for certain things and Fred was more than happy to oblige. So it took time, but by the time winter really set in, we were stocked. Then it got to the point that if we didn’t have something, then it would just have to wait until spring, for the deep freeze was nigh. Once the world froze, there would be nothing to do, but wait.