We tried to hug the coast of Lake Superior as much and as often as we could as we made our way west toward the source of the Mississippi. As we entered Wisconsin, there were two peninsulas that we had to contend with. We could either walk the perimeter or we could walk a straight line at the base. There was a small one inside the Bad River Indian Reservation. We cut across that one at the base. We didn’t think we should tempt fate with the Indian Reservation authorities.
Machine asked, “Are the Chippewa people mean?”
Bill said, “Hell yeah, them niggers will scalp you!”
Machine had no response. He wouldn’t even look at Bill. He didn’t want to touch it. Nobody did. After quite some time had passed, Caring Sue looked back and said, “I’m sure the Chippewa people are friendly, Machine. We have nothing to worry about. For me, I just want to hurry across their land so that we trespass against them as little as is absolutely necessary. Look at us. We’re all as white as fresh fallen snow. We just don’t belong here.”
Bill said, “I’m allowed to call them niggers because I am part ingine myself!”
Caring Sue said, “Shut up, Bill.”
Bill went to speak again, but Caring Sue said more loudly and sternly, “I…said…shut…up…Bill.”
Then Bill screamed, “Hey! Don’t you tell me what to do, you fucking cunt!”
Very suddenly the bandwagon came to a screeching halt. Everybody turned around to look at Bill. Machine shook his head, gestured with his thumb toward Bear and said, “I ain’t protecting you from him this time, dude. You’re on your own.”
Bill put up his hands. He began slowly walking backwards and said, “Hold on a second, we have to examine this from all sides and look at what really just happened here.”
Bear shook his head and said, “No we don’t.”
Bill kept backing up and Bear kept moving toward him. The look in Bear’s eyes terrified me. I almost wanted to run. He wasn’t rushing toward Bill. His movement was slow, deliberate, and methodical. Bill just kept pleading his case and walking backwards. He said, “I’m sorry I had to say that Caring Sue! But I’m an adult and you shouldn’t tell another adult what to do, that is all. I should have just said that, instead I was mean about it!”
It didn’t turn Bear back. He was still making his way toward Bill and Bill just kept backing up. Everybody else was behind Bear. I was still behind Bill though, so everybody including Bill was in front of me. I was keeping with Bill as he backed up. I finally worked up enough nerve to do the thing I wanted to do to Bill, so I let him back right into me. I tried to keep him in front of me by using things I learned in basketball. I was pushing him toward Bear with my chest and the front of my thighs. I could feel the frantic fear that was possessing him as he struggled to get by me. He was terrified. I saw it in his eyes. Even so, I did the thing I set out to do—I gave him a kidney shot—a punch right in his mid-lower back. He cried out, turned to me, our eyes connected, but it was less than a second, then he ran the other way. As he pushed away from me, he knocked me to the ground. Bear and everybody else turned with him and continued their slow methodical pursuit.
Caring Sue came up to me, knelt down and said, “Are you okay, Piper? Did he hurt you?”
I shook my head and said, “No, but I might have hurt him! I got a good kidney shot in for ya!”
She tended to me momentarily. With furled brow she said, “Why the hell did you do that? I didn’t tell you to do that! I have to stop Bear from killing him!” She got up and ran after Prof and the boys. They were not far off. I got up, dusted myself off, and started making my way toward them. I could see that Bear had Bill up against a tree and everybody else was more or less egging Bear on. As it continued though, I could see minds were changing about what Bear was doing—Prof and Stephan for sure. He had his left hand around Bill’s throat. I could see Bill struggling. Bill was only a few inches taller than five feet and Bear was about six foot and then some. Plus, he was built. He had muscle. Bill was trying, but he couldn’t get a good kick in, and he didn’t have the upper-body strength to break Bear’s grip. My mind was changing too. I was actually feeling sorry for Bill. I felt bad about my punch. When he turned and our eyes met—I know this is going to sound crazy—But I saw his heart. I didn’t just hurt an organ or two, I hurt his feelings. It was like he communicated his feelings in that split-second glance. All I needed to know. His back hurt, but maybe not as much as the betrayal. He might even have considered me one of his friends.
Caring Sue said, “Bear, he is turning blue!”
Bear said, “Good.”
Prof and Stephan looked at one another—concerned looks on their faces, but they weren’t saying anything. Then Bill passed out. Yet, Bear didn’t loosen his grip, he just kept going. So then Caring Sue gave him his own kidney-shot just like the one I gave Bill, but I think this one was harder because she had time to frame the hit and put everything she had into it.
Bear then released his grip on Bill. He swung around quickly and said, “Hey, what the hell!” Then realized who has punched him and said, “Carin’ Sue?”
But Caring Sue wasn’t available for comment. She had caught Bill as his dead-weight dropped to the Earth. Then she laid him down flat and put her ear to his mouth and checked for a pulse. He was still alive. She was about to say something to Bear, but Bill suddenly shot awake. He had no idea where he was or what was going on. “Where am I? How did I get here?”
Caring Sue said without emotion, “You’re in Wisconsin, Bill. You walked.”
She continued to tend to him, but it soon became obvious by the expression on his face that he knew where he was and what was going on. Caring Sue then rose to her feet and turned from Bill. As she walked by Bear and Machine, she said to them, “Now, leave him alone. Let’s go.”
Bear turned as she walked by and with a look of disgust said, “Are you kidding me?” Machine didn’t say anything, but his body language and facial expression displayed disbelief.
Caring Sue turned and said, “No, I am not. Bill has paid. You have made it so that he has paid rather dearly actually. Piper gave him a good kidney shot, then there is what you’ve done…enough! It doesn’t exactly break my heart that Bill thinks I am a cunt. And what more can be done?”
Bear exclaimed, “We leave him here! He is part Indian, he will be fine! We go on without him!”
Caring Sue said, “Well, you need an unanimous vote to ouster one of us and you all don’t have it.”
Bear moved and began to look about, but Caring Sue said, “It is me, Bear. I vote that he stays.” She let it sink in for a few moments, then she went on, “As the victim of his offense, I say that he has paid enough, now let’s move on. We don’t have to help him to his feet. We don’t have to offer him any sympathy as we watch him limp about for the next few days. I am not telling you to feel sorry or ashamed. I’m just saying—enough. You took away a man’s breath, Bear. That is not yours to take. That breath was given to him by God. It doesn’t matter if you think he deserves it. It is not up to you. If you take it away long enough, then you take away his life and this is certainly not yours to take. And Piper. I don’t know how causing damage to one or more of Bill’s internal organs is going to right the ship after what Bill has done. If you boys want to do something, then don’t think of it as Bill having wronged me, think of it as Bill having wronged women in general. When you boys go into town, and Bill sets his sights on a woman, when he gets up to use the bathroom, warn the woman what she is up against. If you want to do something, let’s just make sure he never has sex again, okay?”
Of course, no one was happy to just leave it there. With pursed lips and a furled brow, Bear looked to Machine, but Machine just shrugged. So we continued on with Bill. I actually never even had a problem with Bill. Not until he said that thing to Caring Sue. Even so, I wouldn’t have voted for his ouster either. Prof and Stephan might have voted for him to stay. When I sensed the terror he was experiencing though, my heart really did go out to him. I had a helpless and hopeless soul in my arms and instead of shielding that helpless soul and protecting him, I punched him in the back. I can still see the frightened desperate look on Bill’s face. It was probably the truest form of vulnerability Bill had ever displayed to anyone. He feared for his life. I felt about the same as I would have felt if I had punched a kitten or a puppy. It haunts me. Regardless of what anybody thinks of Bill, he does have a heart. I saw it. It took Bear almost having to kill him, but I did see it.
As much as Caring Sue said she wanted to get off of their land, we still managed to stop at every stand along the way. Every single one. She said she felt obligated to stop and given them something. She spent more money from her personal stash than I had ever seen her spend. She does like her gemstones though. They don’t even have to be precious for Caring Sue—just beautiful. She did buy some jewelry as well. And she always gave them more than what they were asking. She explained after one of the stops that they weren’t asking enough. Though she didn’t mind getting a good deal, she felt like they were selling themselves short. Bear bought a necklace at the first stop and Machine bought a leather bracelet at the second one. The native explained to Machine that it was almost like the native’s version of the US military’s dog-tags. Stephan bought a magic wand at the last stand we stopped at. It was capable of aligning the energy vortexes in the human body—whatever that meant. Stephan can be a little out of this world at times. Bear loves it though! He kidded him about it for miles—Stephan the Sorcerer!
After we got out of the Indian Reservation, Bill suddenly started walking next to me. It was okay with me, I guess. I wasn’t angry anymore. The score was settled. I actually felt more guilt than anything. It is not unusual for someone to come back and walk next to me at the back of the bus. It is most often Prof, sometimes Caring Sue, sometimes Stephan, sometimes Bear, but never Bill. After about a mile or so, he pointed briefly up ahead and said, “Why don’t you go walk up next to Machine.” It wasn’t phrased as a question.
I immediately said, “No.”
He responded, “I’m serious.”
I said, “I know you are. I don’t care. You are intruding on my domain, Bill. I always walk the back of the bus. Mostly alone. It is alright if somebody wants to come back for a second. It is the way it has been since I got here. If you want to talk, then fine, but I am not giving up my spot.”
He said, “Wow, you really are a mouthy little kid, huh?”
I didn’t say anything. I just kept walking. I knew that he knew my buttons.
After awhile he said, “You mean even after that cheap-shot, sucker-punch you gave me, you can’t let me have some time to myself? So I can lick my wounds. I don’t have any friends here, which is fine, but I wouldn’t mind being alone for a second. You get all this time back here all by yourself, Piper. You can’t help me out, let me have a little of it?”
I said, “I am sorry about that punch, Bill. I really am. I felt guilt immediately. As soon as you looked at me, I felt bad. I really am sorry. I have never had a problem with you, Bill, up until you said that thing to her. Maybe I am not your friend, but I wasn’t ever your enemy.” I looked him in the eye and put out my hand. I was going to show him how little of a kid I was. He looked at me, then the hand. He hesitantly accepted my apology. No words. Just the handshake. After that was completed I said, “Bill, I am not giving up my space at the back of the bus. I like it back here. I get visitors. Most of the time, they come bearing gifts. You know—their company, their wisdom, their conversation. You? You come back here and offer me nothing, but you sure want to take. It is like what Bear always says to you about how you always show up to the table with an empty plate.”
He said, “I remember a time when Machine and I were the back of the bus.”
I said, “I guess that makes me the bratty little brother who gets everything he wants, huh?”
He said, “Guess so.”
Bill just let it go after that. We walked alongside each other for little while yet. I don’t know why he was staying there, he still didn’t want to talk, and he knew I wasn’t going to cave. Eventually he walked ahead and took his usual spot on the bus next to Machine. Within a few hours they were talking again. A little anyway. In a couple of days, everything was back to normal with everybody and Bill. Bear never did apologize for his attempted murder and Bill didn’t hold it against him.
We could have followed US-2 and made a straight line for Duluth, but we decided to take the scenic route around the larger peninsula that I had mentioned earlier. We were spending so little time in Wisconsin, on foot anyway, that we decided to trek the peninsula. Of course, Wisconsin would be to our left for a few hundred miles as we went down the Mississippi, but we didn’t have any plans to meander too far from the river once we acquired our canoe and began the decent. The Bayfield Peninsula did not disappoint. It was home of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for a reason. My God, what beautiful scenery! We were walking Wisconsin Highway 13 so we could reconnect with US-2, when we came upon a town called Cornucopia. The town’s claim to fame was that it was Wisconsin’s northern most town, but we were interested in Zeus’s horn of plenty. No such luck. We went into the post office, the general store, and even the museum. It was like the town had never even heard of Zeus.
When we got into Duluth, there was a Salvation Superstore. It sure was the largest we had ever seen. It actually had a canoe for sale. It was an eight person aluminum canoe. It was just chained to a pole out front. It didn’t appear to have any paddles. We all took off our packs and sat in it to see how we fit. Then we brought our packs and gear onto the canoe with us. It was tight. Bear called it ‘cozy’. We sat the same way we walked except Machine sat next to me in the stern. Stephan sat next to Bill in front of us. Bear had his own seat behind Caring Sue and Prof, who were seated at the bow. Bear ended up with three packs next to him in the extra seat. Then some of it ended up behind us at the stern. Prof and Caring Sue laid a pack out across the bow. We sat in this thing for quite some talking it over.
Caring Sue said, “I don’t know boys. One quick movement either way and we’re going to lose stuff in the river.”
Suddenly a sales associate came out. He was probably only a few years older than me. Definitely still in high school. He introduced himself as Daniel and asked if we had any questions about the canoe.
Caring Sue introduced herself and then said, “Well, we are in the market for a canoe, but I don’t know if this one is the right fit for us.”
Daniel was very soft spoken and pleasant. With a smile he said, “Yes, it does look a little cozy in there. You know, it does come with oars though. Should I go get them?”
Caring Sue said asked him to go get them, but as soon as the kid was in the building, she turned around, the best she could anyway, and said, “We are not buying this thing! I think it is too small and we are still too far from the river.”
Bear said, “Agreed”
Machine said, “This would be alright as a taxi, but all the way to New Orleans? No way.”
Bear and Machine had the largest frames out of all of us. Caring Sue said, “We might need to think about maybe getting a skiff or a big rowboat. ”
Prof said, “Well, at least we know what an eight person canoe ought to fetch in these parts. There isn’t any negotiating with the Salvation Army, but usually they are priced pretty right. I wonder if there is a such thing as a ten person canoe?”
Caring Sue nodded in agreement. Then the sales person Daniel came out with the oars. There was six of them in all. We gave them a whirl for a few moments, pretending as if we were in the water, but we all knew the canoe wasn’t for us. We thanked Daniel for his time and then went into the actual building. As soon as we walked through those doors, I could see her. The object of my affection. Everyone else navigated toward the clothes. I went straight for the west wall where she was standing. It couldn’t really be her—could it? In Duluth? No, it can’t be! I’m not going to find my better half at a thrift shop! There is just no way! I said, “Corona?” She didn’t say anything. I picked her up and tilted her head back and looked. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. I said, “It is! Corona Number 3!”
I set her back down and just then Prof came up from behind and said, “Whoa, look at that, Piper! A fold-able typewriter!”
I smiled and said, “Pretty neat, huh?”
He said, “Yeah! I used something like this growing up. We didn’t have fancy computers and printers. We had these. I even used one in college. That thing was probably made in the thirties or forties.”
I said, “Well, actually Corona only made the No. 3 model up until 1941 and every time they made a new one, they just added a number. They started with serial number one in 1917 and ended with serial number seven hundred thousand something in 1941.”
He smiled and said, “Is that right?”
I said, “Yeah, even when they changed something, even if it was drastic, as long as it was a Corona No. 3, they just added a digit, year after year. So this one has a model number in the five hundred thousands so it is probably mid to late twenties. I’d need to see the chart to know for sure, but…”
He smiled and nodded, then headed on. I stood there and admired her for a bit. I wasn’t interested in anything else. I didn’t need to look around. I had found the one. I guess I didn’t feel a need to proclaim it to the world or otherwise make it legal and binding right there on the spot either. I knew when we walked out that door that she would be accompanying me and that we would spend the rest our days together.
Suddenly though, Prof, Bear, and Machine come walking up. Machine said, “Wow, look at that!”
Prof said, “That is what I was telling you about!”
Bear said, “You think there is money to be made in it?”
Prof said, “Oh yeah, watch this.” He picked up the typewriter, folded it, opened it, folded it, then held it up, and said, “Look at how small it gets. These were cutting edge in their time. Like a laptop now. This one is probably mid to late twenties. I could tell you for sure if I had the chart. We can buy it and then probably sell it back to an antiques dealer right here in Duluth. Easy money!”
As soon as it dawned on me what they were actually talking about I furled my brow and shouted, “Hey!”
Prof seemed taken aback, “Oh, I’m sorry, Piper. We weren’t going to leave you out of it. Of course, you’re in on it too. You found it, after all. We’ll go in four ways. After tax, it’ll be a little less than six bucks each, but we can probably turn that into eighteen or even twenty-four bucks each. Maybe we could even talk to Caring Sue about just using money from the pot, then put it back in a few hours with interest. She’d love that. Then we’ll all benefit.”
I said emphatically, “No! I want to own it! For myself! You got your telescope! Caring Sue has got her gemstones! Bill has got his guitar! I want my typewriter! I was standing here fixin’ to buy it! You knew that!” Then I looked to Prof and said, “Et tu, Brute?”
Prof threw up his hands and said, “Whoa! Whoa! I had no idea, Piper! I mean, I knew you liked it. I didn’t think enough to buy it. I figured you were just spending as much time with it as you could before we had to leave. I have never heard of this concept—what do you call it—fixing to buy a thing. What is this? Hmm. I figured maybe you just couldn’t afford it amd that is why you are just standing there staring. It is a lot of money.” Then he just shrugged. A moment later though he turned back to me and holding the typewriter up he said, “Are you going to walk then, with this typewriter, everywhere you go, across these United States?”
I snatched it out of his hands and said, “Yes! It is portable!” I flipped it open and then snapped it shut. Then I sidestepped him and the rest of ‘the investors’ and headed toward the t-shirts, for it was nearing summer and though I had found the love of my life, I still needed something cooler to wear. I could hear them laughing as I frolicked away. They couldn’t understand a thing such as what existed between Corona and I, what it meant to me, how hard it was for me to work up the nerve to even approach her, and then to ask that she walk beside me for all of my days—it was deep. I didn’t know how deep it could go, but I knew it was deep. It wasn’t the money. I would give all of it, if just to have her. Even so, I knew she was out of my league. My beautiful Corona No. 3! I didn’t deserve her, but neither did anyone else, so I humbly became her beau.
We hung around Duluth for a few days, not just Corona and I, but the rest of the gang too. It was a rather large city. We hadn’t seen a large city in over a year and we wanted to take advantage of what one had to offer. Bill was having a lot of success with impromptu sidewalk gigs. There really weren’t a lot of places to play as we were going through Michigan. Of course, he always played for us. He played everyday for us. But in a town like Duluth he could perform in front of record stores, guitar shops, and other hip places. He could gather large crowds from people just walking by. After he assembled a large crowd, they would have me walk around in the back with a five-gallon bucket vying for tips for the musician known as Outlaw Oklahoma Bill. They had me do it because they said people were more likely to be generous with a kid. I hated it, but I just shook my head, rolled my eyes, and did what they asked.
Then there would be other times when the crowd would be thin. Maybe there would be one lady walking by and Bill would try to play to her and only her. He’d give it all he had. He’d pick a song he thought was her. She would be walking by with her sunglasses on—cold and deaf. Not always but sometimes Bill would get to her. She’d crack a smile, then turn around before she got too far, reach into her purse to find a dollar for him. Maybe she would give a few words encouragement as she left the money in his hat, but then she would strut off the same way she strutted in. I know I haven’t said a lot good about Bill. Maybe Bill was so bad because that is the price that has to be paid when you are a good artist. Because Bill wasn’t just simply a good guitarist. It was just his favorite medium. He could write a song and then just carry it with him. You know, when you write a book, there are pages and things that are needed to convey that book to others. So too is it with painters and their canvas. Or sculptors and their clay. Bill only needed his guitar though. His songs were written in his heart and he knew how to paint them in other people’s hearts. It was crazy how intense he would get while playing.
While we were there in Duluth, he started playing one of his own songs that he had written. Most of the time he would play covers. He wanted people to stop and listen. Well, ideally he wanted them to dance, but first things first, he needed their ears. He knew that if he played songs that people knew, and played them well, that they would at least stop. And if he played them well enough, they would dance. Hence he covered a lot. He had been playing cover after for awhile and he had a good crowd. People would shout out a song and he would just go into it. Sometimes it was enough to get him a five dollar tip.
Caring Sue was still ‘teaching’ me how to dance. She called this lesson ‘Dance like a Tree’ and it basically involved me doing just that—standing there, hearing the instrument, hearing the voice, and just feeling it. She said, “Unless you are really in a room alone, there is a degree of self-consciousness that occurs when you are dancing. People are going to watch you for no other reason than their eyes are attracted to movement. But I want you to dance like nobody is watching. The problem with this is that the mind gets in the way. Bill isn’t thinking about the music as he is playing it. The music flows unrestrained and uninhibited through his mind and moves to his hands and feet. The vibration doesn’t lose speed or momentum as it flows through his mind and certainly not through his body. If he were to stop and think about what notes and cords needed to be played, the song simply wouldn’t happen. Bill feels it and this feeling is what moves his fingers across that fret-board properly. This is what you need to find as a dancer. So tonight I just want you to stand like an oak, palms facing forward, arms raised slightly, back straight, eyes closed, and shut down your mind. I know that last one is easier said than done, but shut it down. Let his words flow through you as a conduit. But I just want you to be a radio antenna tonight. You are not interpreting the signal. You are just receiving it. You emanate nothing tonight. Got it?”
Suddenly, I felt a nudge. I looked over and Caring Sue was gesturing me down, so she could have my ear. She said, “You need to watch these girls’ moves.” As soon as I opened my eyes, I saw them. There were these four young college-aged women just dancing like crazy to whatever he would play. I guess it was because of them that he decided to go into his own material. They had been dancing like that the entire set and they were getting other people into it. I knew something crazy was going on with the music, but my eyes were closed. I was feeling it. Bill was playing with an intensity, almost ferocity, that I had never heard. I had heard him play this original before, but I had never heard it quite like this before. I didn’t realize that he had found a muse. I heard people hooting and hollering, but I still didn’t bother to open my eyes. I was feeling the music. Caring Sue and I watched them dance for rest of the time that they were there. And wouldn’t you know, once they left, Bill struggled with his rhythm. The next day I asked him about his song and what possessed him.
He said, “It was those four girls up front! Holy shit! Didn’t you see them? It was like I had all four in bed with me at one time and I was keeping them all satisfied! When you’ve light a woman up, you don’t ask a lot of questions, Piper. You just keep doing whatever you’ve been doing until she tells you to stop, or until she starts cries out for her maker—which ever comes first.”
Bill really was on fire though and it was Duluth, Minnesota . I guess that is what a year in the Michigan wilderness will do to you. Michigan really is just an endless forest with a few highways and a couple of cities carved into her. So just getting to a decent size city where Bill could show off his wares did wonders for him. When Bill was playing music, he really was at his finest as a person. Lets not forget that it was only a hundred miles or so behind us where Bill almost got murdered.
But it gets deeper and stranger still. After a long layover in Duluth, we were finally heading out. Of course, anytime we are about to leave a place where goods are plentiful and cheap, we always stock up on supplies. A can of coffee might cost you a dollar ninety-nine in the big city, but in the country the same can will cost you five dollars. Caring Sue had me go into the grocery store with her to help carry things. Prof and the boys went out back to scope out the dumpsters and look for aluminum cans. Caring Sue and I were checking things off her list when all of a sudden Bill showed up in front of us.
He said, “I wanted to get you when you were alone. Well I mean, Piper is okay. I just mean away from everybody.”
Caring Sue turned her head slightly and said “O…kay.”
Bill put up his hands and said, “No…I mean…oh hell. I just wanted to give you this, but I didn’t want to do it in front of everybody.” He handed it to her and she took it. She unfolded it and began spreading the bills. He continued, “It is two hundred dollars. Sorry, it is all ones. If you could buy everybody a nice bottle of whiskey or something, I’d appreciate it. And buy something nice for yourself. And Piper too. I know you don’t drink and Piper can’t. Then just put the rest in the pot for a rainy day or whatever we need down the road. But don’t tell them that it is from me. You know, tell ’em you bought it from the pot because you thought we all deserved it.”
Unconvinced, she shook her head and said, “Nobody would believe that, Bill.”
He looked down and said, “Yeah, you’re right.” He started contorting his mouth slightly as if in thought. Then he continued, “Well, just put it in the pot and treat everybody whenever you can—here and there. Slowly. Over time. You could even do a little something today. You know?”
She cocked her head slightly and with a furled brow she said, “What has gotten into you Ebeneezer?”
Bill laughed, then said rather solemnly, “I’m jumping off. Not right away, but soon. This experience here in Duluth has been really eye opening for me. I forgot about how it feels to play. Well, I mean to a crowd—to bounce my songs off them and to feel the re-verb that comes back my way—that’s everything! I need that! I know Duluth isn’t my place, but somewhere down the Mississippi is my place. And it might be down as far as the Delta—I don’t know. I think when we get down to New Orleans, if I haven’t already found a home, I’m just going to stay there. I know you guys will be heading on as you always do, but I’ll be jumping off the bus at some point. And well, I don’t want to leave things bad with the rest of the boys, you, and Prof. You’ve guys have always been good to me.”
She interjected, “What is the meaning of the money?”
He said, “Well I was getting to that.”
She said, “Sorry, go ahead.”
He nodded and said, “I just want you all to walk away from me having been enriched on some level even if it is only a few bucks. I didn’t steal anywhere near two hundred dollars from you all over the years.” When he said that, she immediately looked to me with this expression on her face that said—did you just hear that? Bill read it too because he immediately said, “You heard that right Carin’ Sue. So the rest, however much that may be, is restitution. I ain’t the monster Bear makes me out to be. I know I’ve got my faults. But when my heart is into it, I give it my all. And I think it is just because my heart isn’t into all that we do.”
She smiled and said, “You mean the work?”
He shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess.”
She said almost sarcastically, “Well, that is big of you to admit, Bill.”
With his hands in his pockets, he nodded and looked down. A few moments later he said, “But I’ve done really well here in the past few days.” Pulling his left hand out of his pocket and pointing to the wad of money in her hands he said, “You and Piper especially did a lot to help out. You were always dancing and Piper made the rounds a lot and got more money in the bucket. I saw all that.”
Caring Sue asked, “Is the part about you jumping off a secret, Bill? I mean, should Piper and I keep it under wraps?”
Bill said, “Yeah, if you could. Just for now.
She said, “Okay.” Then she shrugged and said, “Thanks, Bill. We’ll put it to good use one way or another, that is for sure.”
He said, “Well, I should probably get back out there. They’re probably out bitching up a storm about how I am probably off somewhere taking a nap or otherwise goofing off.”
She laughed and said, “Right.”
Bill scurried out of the store and Caring Sue and I continued to make our way down the aisle. After a few moments had passed she said, “Well, it sounds like Bill has found religion.”
I was taken aback. I said, “I didn’t hear him talk about God at all!”
She stopped and looked at me briefly. She combed my hair with her fingers and straightened my shirt. As she straightened out my collar she said, “Finding God, and finding religion are two very different things, dear. I didn’t say he found God. I said he found religion.”
Perplexed, I said, “How so?”
She said, “Weren’t you listening? Didn’t you hear him? He comes in here and confesses his sins to us. He promises never to sin against us again, and then he atones for his sins with a very generous gift of money. And it is not about ego because he wants it done in secret. He is no longer living for this world, Piper, he is living for the world that is yet to come. He is now living for something that is greater than himself. He is living for the Way. And it isn’t enough that he has found it for himself, he must now bring it to the world, so that others may see, hear, and know it too. For how can you truly be free, when the ones around you are still enslaved. Bill knows that in order to be born into the world that is waiting for him, he must first die in this one, not literally, but it is a death of sorts. He is settling his affairs, Piper.” Then she looked at me and began shaking her head in the affirmative.
I could hardly hold back my exasperation. I said, “That is what you got from that, Caring Sue! I don’t know what you are talking about at all!
She said, “Bill found religion, Piper, that is all.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed and said incredulously, “What is his religion then, Caring Sue?”
She said, “Rock and Roll, Piper. Rock and Roll.”
So there you have it. With a reborn Bill in our clan we headed northwest out of Duluth. We just shadowed US-2 more or less just like we had in Michigan, and for the small time that we were in Wisconsin. It moved northwest right toward the Mississippi headwaters. When we arrived at Lake Itasca State Park, we didn’t see a lot of people with kayaks and canoes shoving off down the river. In fact, we didn’t see any. There is an official source, a spot, where you can walk across the river that denotes the official start of the Mississippi. People were doing that. We went to the visitor’s center. Caring Sue approached an extremely elderly man who was wearing park ranger garb. She said, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me why there are not any people heading off down the Mississippi from here?”
The man had a bit of a hunch to his back. So he had to kinda raised his whole upper body to look at anyone taller than Caring Sue who was five foot even. He looked to her with a smile and said, “Young lady, I can tell you almost anything there is to know about these parts. I started working here in 1931 when the Department of Conservation was created. You know, it later became the Department of Natural Resources. They say the Great Depression was a rough time—and it was—but I’ll tell you what, because of that Great Depression, I landed this here wonderful job. I started planting trees here when I was fourteen years old for a nickel a day. As time moved on, I worked my way up. Opportunities would arise. By the time I was eighteen, I was making a dollar a day building roads or building structures within this here park. A lot of them are still standing to this day. What was it again, that you wanted to ask me, dear?”
Caring Sue smiled brightly. She sure did know how to pick ’em. He didn’t look like Fred. He was black and Fred was white, but they spoke and carried themselves the same way. They loved people. They lived for people. Without people they would just whither away and die. His name tag said Ranger Tom, but I doubt he ever strayed too far from the air conditioned comfort of the visitor center. Like Fred, you got the sense that he was just there for the enjoyment of company. Caring Sue said smiling, “Well Ranger Tom, we were wondering why there isn’t really a launch here for the Mississippi, but rather you guys have people launching off upstream some…?”
He interjected and said, “Thirty miles.”
She said, “Yes, thirty miles. How come?”
He said, “You really do have a lovely smile, darling! You have to tell me—are you going to ride this river all the way to New Orleans?”
Caring Sue still smiling said with pride, “Why yes, sir!”
Ranger Tom threw up his hands while saying, “Wonderful!” It kind of startled Caring Sue, but she was still smiling. Ranger Tom continued, “Will you send a post card from the Delta when you get there?” He handed her one of his cards.
She looked at it, looked up, and still smiling said, “Sure. I would love to. Do you get many visitors who arrive here to ride the Mississippi?”
He nodded and said with a toothy smile, “Well no, but the ones who do always have the same goal. It’s a feat like the the Appalachian Trail.”
She said, “How many postcards do you get a year, Ranger Tom?”
He smiled and said, “That is a great question, isn’t it?”
Caring Sue threw down her arms and exclaimed, “Aw, you are not going to tell me?”
Suddenly, he wasn’t smiling anymore. He seemed serious. He said, “No. What I can tell you about is the Source. That is what I know. I’ve been here since 1931 when I was fourteen years old. I’ve been down her a ways before. Made it as far as Minneapolis actually. It was a long time ago. Oh back in the fifties. My cousin and I took a week off. Each of us got away from our wives and kids. But we had to turn around. And of course, I came back here to the Source. It is really all I know. It is really all I can tell you about. If you want to know bout the Delta, then you better ask someone who is working the Delta. I’m sure the Delta has got folks that have been working it since 1931.”
Caring Sue said shyly, like a puppy that had been reprimanded, “Well, what can you tell us about the Source then, Ranger Tom?”
His smile returned. He said, “Well as you can see there, those tourists are walking across the rapids.” He moved in a little closer to Caring Sue and said, “You know the rapids are man-made right?”
She looked at him suspiciously, “Are they?”
He nodded and said, “Yep. It was made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid thirties—only a few years after I got here. It was part of FDR’s New Deal. It put men to work. They cleaned the area up real good. They drained the swamp,” He pointed off in the direction of where it was previously, then pointed back to the river saying, “They dug that channel, and installed those rapids. Well, it has been this way for sixty years now and I guess I am used to it.” He raised his eyebrows and said, “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was a crime. It was like saying Mother Nature made a mistake. She didn’t make something beautiful enough. I know they were just trying to make it more visitor friendly. I understand that. I’ll admit that the visitors do get quite an experience when they wade across the Mississippi at an exact point where a lake ends and a river begins. It is very definitive, and of course, has been the backdrop of many a photo.”
At this point, we had all made our way to the large picture windows of the visitor center and were looking out across Lake Itasca. Ranger Tom continued, “So you are going to start here in Lake Itasca, paddle north toward the rapids. You are going to have to get out and carry your canoe across the rapids. Watch out for tourists. You are going to head north for awhile before the river hooks and starts moving south. There are parts along the way where the river merges with a swamp. You could get lost. You probably will. You are not even going to be sure where the official river is. But just keep going north until you come to Bemidii. You are going to have to carry your canoe across a few roads. Maybe you can get under them, if you duck. And there will be some places where you are just going to have to drag your canoe across shallow water. It is a winding, twisting, turning experience in parts as well. When you get down into Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee, you can tell people about the Great River’s humble origins. You know that is what Mississippi means, right? It is an Ojibwe word meaning “Great River” and that she is. In a day or so, just before you get to Bemidii, is the Mississippi Headwaters State Park. By the time you get there, you will have an answer to your original question to me.”
Caring Sue smiled, “It is not so visitor friendly, huh?”
Ranger Tom shook his head and said, “No ma’am. It is not too late though. You can still take your rig north and shove off from Easy Street like everyone else.”
She shook her head and with a smile said, “No, sir. We’ll be starting at the beginning, with the Source.”
He nodded and then said, “Well, lets see your canoe. Lets see what you are riding.”
She grimaced and said, “Well, you see, we actually haven’t gotten one yet. We’re still…”
He interjected, “What? So this is just a pipe dream? You are not even ready to go?”
She said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, you don’t understand. We hiked here from Michigan! We just got into town! We are ready to go! But what? Were we supposed to carry a canoe in on our backs?”
Suddenly his demeanor changed. He seemed stunned, awestruck even. He said, “You hiked here from Michigan? So you can ride the Mississippi?”
She said, “Yes.”
He started laughing. Almost uncontrollably. Then he reached over and put his right hand on Machine’s left shoulder, then taking his left hand, he put it on Bill’s right shoulder and said, “These are my people.” Everyone got a kick out of it. Then he said, “Are you really going to shove off today?”
Caring Sue said, “Sure!”
Ranger Tom said, “I might have just the thing for you. Follow me.”
It was a slow tedious walk following him. He took us out through the back door of the visitor center. He turned to us and said, “I want to take you to the park bone-yard. It is off a ways on the edge of the park. It is a bone-yard for a cluster of state parks in this part of Minnesota actually. It is quite a walk from here though. At least I think so. My old bones couldn’t handle it. They won’t give me a truck anymore. Lets see what they’ll give me as far as a cart goes. Otherwise we’re walking.” He knocked on a garage door that was adjacent to the back door. A man pulled up the door from the inside. Ranger Tom inquired about a vehicle. The only thing available was a simple golf-cart, so that is what he drove, while we walked alongside. It was easy enough to keep pace with though.
We took a path along the North Arm Lake Itasca and then continued on along the West Arm Lake Itasca. When we got to the bottom of the lake, we headed west. We crossed over Nicolet Creek. Ranger Tom stopped the cart on the bridge while the rest of us continued on ahead. A hundred feet or so ahead and we realized that we had seemingly lost him. In actuality he just wanted to show us something. He didn’t mind making us walk in vain. It was our fault for not being observant. We backtracked to the bridge. When we got back to him, he said, “You came to me because you wish to know about the Source, well here is something to behold. This is Nicolet Creek. Which way is the current flowing?”
Prof looked up and said, “It is flowing north, into Lake Itasca.”
Ranger Tom said, “Right. You see, Lake Itasca has in-flows into it. This is just one of them.”
Prof asked, “Is Lake Itasca fed by a spring somewhere beneath?”
Ranger Tom shook his head and said, “It is a glacial lake.”
Prof said, “That is being fed from either another glacial body at a higher elevation or from a spring.”
Ranger Tom then said, “We know where the first few trickles begin for both the Nile and the Amazon, but not so with the one the Ojibwe call Great River.”
Prof pointed south and and said, “Well what happens if we follow this creek?”
Ranger Tom said in a matter of fact tone, “You come upon another lake, another couple of lakes. One of them is Nicolet Lake. And there are more creeks.”
Prof urged, “And?”
Ranger Tom said, “And you could spend your whole life looking for it and never find it. You might even go mad in the process. True story.”
We continued on this path until it merged with Wilderness Drive, which was the main road through the heart of the park. We went on along that for a couple of miles, until we came upon a service drive that had a sign with an arrow that said, “Maintenance.” We went down a long service drive that was overgrown by bush. Eventually, there was a poll barn with a large fenced-in area adjacent to it. Ranger Tom unlocked the pad lock, then Bear and Machine rolled the massive chain-link door open enough to get Ranger Tom’s cart through. They were pushing it through massive overgrowth.
Ranger Tom got off his cart and began walking toward us. He said, “Here we are. This is all property of the State of Minnesota. It’ll eventually end up on the auction block where the Sate of Minnesota will fetch pennies on the dollar for it. As you can see, there are an assortment of canoes and kayaks here. I even see a couple of twenty-five footers over there.”
We were all drawn to those twenty-five footers. They were mammoth! They were nothing like what we had experience at the Salvation Army in Duluth. We pulled the two twenty-five footers down so we could compare them. Both were almost indistinguishable from one another. We all jumped in with our packs in hand. Wwere comfortable and there was space leftover.
Ranger Tom said after awhile, “Here is how it works—the State can only ask what it has reasonably received for a similar item in the past. What that basically means—highest bid at the last auction plus a small nominal fee. You want me to phone it in, see if I can get a price for you?”
Without hesitation Caring Sue said, “Yes, please!”
Everyone else was in agreement. We were all smiles. We knew that these were very expensive canoes and that we might be getting one for pennies on the dollar. In a few minutes, the call came back over Ranger Tom’s walky-talky—three hundred and twenty five dollars. That was from a high bid of three hundred dollars placed in an auction in 1991, plus a twenty five dollar service fee.
Caring Sue looked around. Everyone seemed eager and willing so she said, “We’ll take one!”
Ranger Tom got on the walky-talky and ordered up a shuttle bus to swing by and pick us up. There was only one downfall to the canoe—it was heavy. It took four of us to carry it. It was bulky and it weighed at least a couple of hundred pounds. I suppose that also had the advantage that nobody was going to just walk off with it, if we were to walk away from it for a moment or two. By the time we figured out which one we wanted, the shuttle bus showed up. It was actually just a big van with a trailer for transporting kayaks and canoes. It already had a couple of kayaks on it and there was already a couple in the van. The driver of the shuttle had us all hoist the canoe onto a rack that was on top of the van. Then he asked, “Where are your oars and life jackets?”
We had kind of overlooked that. It prompted Ranger Tom to take us into the poll barn where there was a cabinet with hundreds of flotation devices. Excess inventory. He said, “You would be doing us a favor if you took a dozen of these. Free of charge.” There was only seven of us, but we took twelve of the nicest life vests they had. And up against one of the walls was an assortment of paddles and oars. Again, excess inventory. He said the same thing. They always had an influx of new equipment coming in and things like oars and paddles had a tendency to just fall to the wayside and go to waste.
We knew that couple might be waiting on us, so we hurriedly navigated our way through the oars. Caring Sue said, “Piper, why don’t you go see where he is at with tying down the canoe. Maybe you can help him get turned around so he can drive out of here, but try to buy us some time too, if you can some how, and report back to us, if you can. Can you do that for me, boy?”
I went outside and stood in the shade of the trailer. I looked up. The man who was loading the canoe looked down and said, “Hi.”
I said, “Hello. Can I help you with anything?”
He said, “Yes, actually! My cigarettes and lighter are right there in the middle of the front seat. Can you put the lighter in the pack and then just throw the pack up to me?”
I said, “Sure.” I did that for him and then asked, “Anything else?”
He said, “Naw. Thanks though. I about done here.”
I said, “Well, I’ll help you get turned around when you are ready to back out of here. It is going to be a tight fit.”
He said, “I appreciate that.”
He got down and finished his cigarette. Before he got in, even before he opened the door, I said, “My folks are trying to pick the best oars they can out of hundreds inside that pollbarn. They could sure use some time. I don’t know if that couple in there is in a hurry, but we’re certainly not.” He just nodded in agreement. He threw his cigarette butt down. He exhaled completely and thoroughly, then he got in the van and began maneuvering. You could tell he was new to the world of trailer towing. In fact, Ranger Tom, Caring Sue, Prof, and everybody ended up coming out of the barn before he was completed. They had picked the best ten oars of the lot, to add to the best twelve life vests the State of Minnesota had to offer. They piled them up outside the poll barn. Then they all stood there for a little while and watched this poor guy suffer to get the shuttle bus and trailer turned around. I guess I should have told him to hurry up. Bear was seriously contemplating intervening. Prof urged him not to. I was still helping the guy by letting him know distances and such. I went up to the crowd and let them know that they’d really be helping the guy out if they all went in the barn. Relieve the pressure. He didn’t need an audience. They agreed and went back in the barn very quickly and waited for my word. Eventually he got it all straightened out and we headed back to Lake Itasca.
Now settling a score with a government agency is never a simple task. Of course, there is paperwork. Even when you are taking discarded property off their hands and donating money to their cause, there is paperwork. I’s need to be dotted, T’s need to be crossed, and most importantly—signatures. Fortunately for us, we had Ranger Tom on our side. He gave us the form and said, “It is just a formality. Just the same, do the best you can, fill out as much as you can, and press hard—you are making three copies.” So we ended up just being honest. We left a lot blank. We put our names—Caring Sue, Prof, Brother Stephan, Bear Bacchus, Machine Gun, Outlaw Oklahoma Bill, and Piper Applebee. We put for our address—United States Of America, Earth. Then we handed it back to Ranger Tom. He looked it over and started laughing uncontrollably. He said, “These are my people.” Then he stamped it with a stamper that made a rather loud noise. He gave us our copy and then directed us to the cashier.
By the time we carried the canoe to the shores of Lake Itasca, it was late afternoon approaching evening. We decided to spend the evening picnicking on the lake shore and then camp nearby overnight. Ranger Tom actually came out and visited us after his shift ended at five in the afternoon. He stayed awhile too. It turns out his story was very much similar to Fred’s. He was a widower. He works the visitor center because it gives his life meaning and purpose. At the end of the day, he was always going home to an empty house. He had a dog and that helped. And of course, his daughter and two sons paid regular visits, but of course there was a void.
Ranger Tom was seated on a tree stump that was adjacent to the picnic table, while the rest of us were seated at the picnic table. Bear and Machine were across from each other at the end, Stephen and Bill were next to them and likewise across from one another. I was sitting next to Stephan and Prof was next to me at the end. Caring Sue was at the other end across from him. The stump Ranger Tom was seated at was just off to her left—Prof’s right. There were two things going on—the one was the boys, the four of them, who were playing cards together. Then there was the three of us that was tuned in to Ranger Tom. I took that seat next to Prof, so I could see Ranger Tom while he told his stories. He repeated himself fairly often, but in my mind that only adds to the validity his stories. They were honed and thoroughly gone over. All of a sudden though, the stories faded and he turned into RANGER Tom. The wind must have shifted and gave him a whiff of something, because in an instant, the smile and laughter fell from his face. His old bones shot up, well as up as they could. He forgot all about the camaraderie. He wasn’t there to talk. Now it was business. He hobbled around to the other end of the picnic table. He took his cane and knocked it against the table top a couple of times and said, “Which one of you boys has got the rum?”
The boys began to look about and to one another, then Stephan, the straightest arrow in the quiver said, “It is all of ours actually. We’re all in on it together.”
Ranger Tom tapped the top of the picnic table with his cane and said, “Well lets see it.” Bear reached down and pulled the bottle from his pack. Ranger Tom looked at it and said, “So you made them three drinks from a little lass than half of that bottle of rum?”
Bear said, “Yes, sir.”
Ranger Tom said, “Strong drink then.”
Bear said, “Yes sir. I find that too much mixer takes away something from the delicate nuances and subtleties that a good rum has to offer.”
Ranger Tom said, “But that is not a good rum.”
Bear said, “No sir, it is not.”
Ranger Tom said, “Delicate nuances? Subtleties?” Bear just shrugged. Ranger Tom continued, “My suspicion is that you are actually the mastermind of this operation. I’ve got a guy over here taking the fall and he doesn’t even have a drink in front of him. Offer him yours—go on—offer it to him.” Looking at Bear, he gestured with is head toward Stephan.
Bear said, “He won’t take it.”
Ranger Tom asked, “Why not?”
Bear said, “Because Brother Stephan is…well, pious.”
Ranger Tom asked, “Pious?”
Bear said, “Yeah, you know—holy. It sounds weird, but Brother Stephan is a very virtuous man. Just because he happens to have an on-again, off-against, dramatic, and tumultuous relationship with the Lord doesn’t take away from his virtue. We all hear them fighting all night. They keep us up. But none of that matters! What matters is that I know, above all other, that Stephan will always do the right thing—even if it kills him.”
Ranger Tom said, “He won’t take the poison, but he’ll take the wrap for it?”
Bear said, “Like I said—pious!”
Ranger Tom said, “Put that bottle away and then bottoms up, boys. What are they going to do—fire me? So bottom’s up! Lets go! I want these drinks consumed. Then rinse your cups out and put ’em away. And don’t be pullin’ that bottle out after I leave either. You understand?”
Bear shook his head, “Yes, sir.”
Machine said, “We’re real sorry, Ranger Tom. We didn’t mean to betray you.”
Ranger Tom said, “Oh, it isn’t that. Did you know when we catch someone vandalizing State land, either by accident or with intent, the drug that they are almost always high on, is alcohol. There is a time and a place and this just isn’t the time or the place, boys. That goes for everybody—no exceptions. Now I know you carry your home with you and alcohol can be as much of a staple as peanut butter, that is why I am letting you off easy. Just put it back with the rest of your foodstuffs. Can you dig that? You are still my people. Now lets see them cups.” He looked into all three and was satisfied. He said, “Okay, now put ’em away.” They all moved toward their packs and as they did he said, “I wish that rum bottle was plastic though. You take care to make sure that empty bottle finds a garbage can!
Bear said, “Oh absolutely! We’ll even recycle it—how’s that?”
Ranger Tom smiled and said, “Well that is not necessary. Just make sure the empty bottle finds the garbage can.” Then he pointed to Bear and said in a jovial way, “And it better not be in this park!”
Laughing, Bear threw up his hands and said, “No, sir.” There were laughs all around. Ranger Tom only stayed for a few more minutes after that. He went back to the stump next to the table and sat down. He was closer in age to Prof, but probably still had twenty years on him. And of course, he liked Caring Sue. All the men did. It seemed like all the older men especially really had it bad for her. I tried to stay focused on what was going on at their end of the picnic table, as opposed to what was going on with the boys at their end, which was basically just cards and nonsense.
Ranger Tom was seventy-six years old, born in the year America entered into World War I. Prof and Caring Sue tried to get him to open up. He had a set amount of stories that he was willing to tell. It was as if they had already had been written, edited, re-written, and then memorized. They pleaded with him, urging him that he had valuable insights, but he waved that all off as non-sense. He wanted to know more about us and our hike from Michigan. You could almost see longing in his eyes. But when you are seventy-six, I guess it is recalled regret. He saw us doing something he wish he would have done more of—get out, walk, and see America in slow motion.
He pointed to me and said, “You are the only person on Earth that I envy right now. I want what you have. What you have, this thing that I want, you yourself are only going to have for a little while yet. And you don’t even really know you have it. You think it is a permanent condition, it is not. It is going to get up and leave. I’m happy to see the most of it is being made.”
I wasn’t even sure I knew what he was talking about, which I suppose proves his point. After a few moments I said, “The most of what?”
He said, “Right now you have a foot in each world. You have a foot in the finite world of adults and a foot in the the infinite world of children. So you have these fresh, virgin eyes that are wandering out into this great big world for the first time. Every day, every moment, every breath is something new and something invigorating.” He then raised a finger and shaking it at me he said, “You’re lucky to have the folks that you do, boy.”
I looked to Caring Sue and she shook her head ever so slightly. That meant let sleeping dogs lay. The other party, in this instance Ranger Tom, assumes that we are an intact family unit, what you call a “nuclear” family. Most of the time I just know, but every once in a while I’ve got to get the nod. The nod means nobody goes out of their way to correct him. It is for our own safety. Ranger Tom thinks it is wonderful that my family would hike me around the United States—educating me this way with what he assumes is supplemented with a home-schooling curriculum. Now, if we were to tell him that I was a fourteen year old runaway that had been truant for over a year, and that none of these people were related to me or even to one another. Well…he might just see things a little differently, to the tune of wanting to call the cops! Nobody wanted that, so we just let sleeping dogs lay.
Ranger Tom continued, “It is like watching eaglets learn to fly with their mother. She is teaching them to do a thing that will eventually lead to them leaving her for good. She is teaching them to let go, while continuing to learn lesson herself. It must be done.” I glanced to Caring Sue who just made a face at me, which made me smile. Noticing the exchange, he said, “I mean it Caring Sue!”
She immediately turned to her left. She put her hand on his arm, and smiling she said, “Piper jumped out of his nest when he was very young, he taught himself how to fly when Prof and I was not there to watch. He has flown a long, long way on his own and it has nothing to do with me or Prof. He actually thinks he is a fish. I think he is a bird like us. But I thank you for regarding Prof and I so well.”
Ranger Tom just kind of stared at her for a moment or two. It didn’t compute with the facts as he understood them. She is talking to him about birds and fish and so he did look at her like—what the hell are you talking about? He ended up just ignoring her comment all together. He turned to focus more on me, almost cutting them out of the conversation altogether. He said, “You are getting the best education in the land, Piper. I really mean it. You are getting out to see the world first hand and you are living so close to the Earth! Last night you slept under the stars. And I mean to forsake automobiles and do it all on foot—that’s a lot! When I say I envy you, it is because you are at an age before that certain something has happened, that thing that kind of jars you into adulthood whether you want it or not. I don’t know what it was for me. Maybe it never really happened. No, it happened. Once you turn into an adult, you loose all of the magic of being a child. I don’t have any of that. I’m an adult through and through.” Then he raised a finger to me and said, “I’m telling you boy, it is fleeting, cease the day. Cease the day! One day, you’re going to find yourself locked out of Neverland!”
I started to laugh. I said, “I am always yelling at people to stop calling me a kid.”
He raised his finger again and said, “You see?” He shook his head, “Careful what you wish for, boy. Careful what you wish for. That door will slam shut on you and you won’t be able to get back in. Why do you think those boys down there drink booze and smoke dope?” I looked down to Bear, Machine, Bill, and Stephan who were playing cards and having their own discussion. Then I looked back to him. He continued, “They’ve been locked out. They can’t get back in. All the magic and mystery of childhood is lost on them now. The hallucinations and visions they see when they put them poisons in their body reminds them of something that they once cherished, but is now lost. I’m not judging them. I understand it. I’m locked out of Neverland too. You think I haven’t tried to get back in? Shit.”
Some of the boys had addictions to feed and lucky for them, Ranger Tom had a dog to feed. As soon as he was gone, the rum came back out. It made another round of drinks for everyone. Bear dumped the half pint of bourbon from his coat into his cup and then set that in the center of the table for anyone to get a drink off of if they wanted. Then somehow Caring Sue managed to convince Bear that this was a special occasion and that he ought to bust out that whiskey Fred gave him for Christmas. I was rather surprised by this move. But true to form, Bear brought out that quart of the finer whiskey. They broke the seal and not too long after that, they had manage to completely polish it off—even Prof and Stephan got in on it. The two of them weren’t much for the drink, but it was finer bourbon.
With the addition of the finer bourbon, everybody was lights out by sundown. It was just Caring Sue and I after that. We sat around and watched the fire mostly. There wasn’t much to talk about. If there wasn’t anything to say, we didn’t feel it wasn’t necessary to fill the void with idle chatter. We just sat in silence. We were comfortable. She had bought marshmallows a day or two ago and still had some left over. She asked me if I wanted a s’more. She brought out the supplies and I made one for each of us.
At some point I asked, “Why were you so into getting them to drink tonight?”
She smiled, “It is not that I wanted them to drink as much as I just wanted the booze gone. I want to start off tomorrow with a canoe that doesn’t have any booze on it. That is the stuff that is going to get us into trouble. Not the drugs. It is going to be the alcohol. And it isn’t Bear. He can hold his liquor. Bear is drinking from the minute he wakes up in the morning, till when he goes to bed at night. Yet, he is not a drunk. He is an alcoholic, but he is not a drunk. As strange as that may sound. So I poured it down their throats instead of pouring it out. I even got Stephan and Prof in on it.”
I said, “You pushed them into it?”
She shook her head, “I know. It is horrible. I just wanted it gone. They could have said no. At any rate, we’re starting off clean tomorrow. Well, except for Bill. This is the thing about Bill though—we all know that he is on something. Machine might know what exactly it is, but no one else really does. It has to be a downer of some sort. Bill is so high energy all the time that whatever he is taking is mellowing him out. Which is good. He does a damn good job of keeping his vices hidden from us. Which is good. Maybe it is just because he doesn’t want to share, which is probably the case, but still. At least I know that Bill isn’t going to get us popped because if we can’t see it, then the police can’t either. I don’t know where Bill goes to score, but he doesn’t ever bring his problem to us.”
We just sat and looked at the fire for a little while. Everyone else was passed out around an adjacent fire off a ways from the one we were at. She was getting ready to move to that one. First she went over and began to clean up the picnic table. There were a few cups that still had some alcohol in them. She went through a trash bag the boys had set up. She found the empty half-pint bottle and began to carefully pour the alcohol from the cups into the bottle using the light from our fire.
I asked, “What are you doing?”
She said, “Scrounging together a little breakfast for Bear.”
I said, “What? But you just said…”
She interjected, “I know, but he’ll need this for the withdrawals.”
We went to bed and woke up when the birds started going nuts, which of course is about an hour or more before actual sunrise. We put the packed canoe out into the water and had some breakfast and coffee. It was just oatmeal and toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Bear started to get fidgety. He started looking through his bags and checking through the garbage. After awhile Caring Sue said, “Bear, I poured what was left in the glasses from last night into this bottle. It is a witch’s brew if there ever was one. I even had to pull a cigarette butt out of one of the cups, but I think it’ll do the trick.”
Bear exclaimed, “Are you serious?”
She shook her head and said, “No, I’m just kidding. About the butt. I really did pour the rest of your drinks into this bottle. It is yours if you want it. I just hated to see it go to waste. But I had to clean up in case a ranger made an early visit or a late one.”
Bear snatched the bottle from her and said with a grimace, “Thank you kindly.” He put some of it in his coffee.
After our quick breakfast, we all began to walk toward the shore of Lake Itasca. Caring Sue suddenly ran out ahead, she picked up an oar and drew a line in the sand. When the six of us caught up with her, she greeted us by saying, “Okay, I’ve drawn a line in the sand and now we have to put something to a vote. It is a matter of our survival. It is either yea or nae.”
Prof said, “Wow, what the hell is going on?” The others concurred as well with as much surprise.
She said, “We all heard Ranger Tom. Given how large our canoe is, we are supposed to register this watercraft with the State of Minnesota. We all know that we are not going to do that. We can’t. Here’s the thing—all the way down the Mississippi, we are going to be constantly between two jurisdictions—at least! There are the states and then there are the local municipalities that may patrol the river as well. We don’t know. But they are only going to ask for our registration if they have a reason to. If we’re just paddling down the river, then they are not going to even question us.”
She hesitated for a few moments, so Bear said, “Right, buuuuut…”
Then she continued, “Well, the way I see it, there are three things that are going to get us stopped. If they see us fishin’, if they see us tipping back bottle and cans, or if they smell reefer. So I propose that while we are on the canoe only—no booze, no drugs and no fishing.” Then she stepped onto her side of the line in the sand.
Bear launched an immediate protest. He said, “Are you out of your fucking mind, woman?”
Caring Sue furled her brow and yelled, “Hey!”
Bear said, “Now I didn’t say you were crazy because you are a woman! I just asked if you’ve gone crazy! And then I referenced you by your gender! That is all!”
She said, “And you cursed at me!”
He said solemnly, “I did…and I am sorry.” When he could see that she was satisfied he continued, “But I am not letting this go. It is no secret that you are a prude, but now you are going to turn into a prig too?”
She furled her brow again and yelled, “Hey!”
Bear said, “No, it fits the bill!”
She said, “It does not, Bear! I have always been live and let live! I am not asking you to be sober. I don’t care what you do when you get off the canoe and go into town, but I don’t want you obliviously throwing them back while we’re going down the river. It gives them a reason to stop us. If they really start digging, then they’re going to impound the canoe.”
Bear said, “I know Caring Sue, but…” Then he began massaging his neck and breathing deeply. “…Are you really going to make me say it?”
Caring Sue said, “Say what, Bear?”
He exhaled deeply and finally said after awhile, “You know I get sick if I go too long without a drink.”
Prof stepped in and tried to bridge the gap. He said to Bear, “All Caring Sue is trying to say is that we might be able to make it all the way to the Delta—if we are careful. She is just asking that we all take certain steps to be a little extra careful since we are navigating through a law enforcement minefield from here to the Delta. But you understand that, right Bear?”
Bear suddenly relaxed. He said, “Well it is not like you are going to frisk me when I get back in the canoe, right?”
Prof shook his head, smiled, and said, “Right, Bear.”
Then Bear said, “Well hell, for now on you all can just consider me clean and sober. Got a bottle, Bear? Nope! I gave the shit up!”
Prof gave him a pat on the shoulder and said, “That’s the spirit. Now sell it to the cops.” Then he looked to Caring Sue and asked, “Satisfied?” But she just rolled her eyes and shook her head. Nonetheless she made her way to the canoe and boarded it. So it must have been enough for her because we shoved off—no booze, no drugs, no fishing.