The One Man Tent (Part I)
Last month I claimed that change is coming to Fourth Night. But as Guantanamo and Iraq show us, change doesn’t generally come as quickly as pledged in the ecstasies of campaign passion. The Fourth Night website therefore, while imbued by the spirit of change, must also at the moment plead patience while hanging around its cyber-neck that blue collar term that has been appropriated by white collar, or rather wireless collar, workers: “Under Construction.” So for the next two months, while the new Fourth Night is constructed I shall post in two parts a short story that I wrote around seven years ago, The One Man Tent. Seeing that this month’s posting is not an essay, it’s a kind of change, although considering it’s fiction, it’s more like change you can’t believe in. (Speaking of what you believe in, if anyone has any ideas as to what exactly the Democrat campaign slogan “Change You Can Believe In” or the Republican “Country First” means, please post a comment. I still can’t decide which one of those two is more incomprehensible.)
The One Man Tent
The young man sat without shutting the door behind him. He inserted the key into the ignition and squeezed the wheel with his left hand.
“Come on, Bessie,” he said, leaning in towards the dashboard as he turned the key.
Red indicators on the dashboard lit up and an electric hum surged through the Oldsmobile, but where the familiar revving of the motor should have been was only a weak clicking. He turned the key back to off. The clicking stopped, the surge died away, and the red lights went out, though the color lingered momentarily against the dashboard in blurry imprint. The inside of the old car was silent and still, and when the young man stuck his jaw out and scratched under his chin, the slow sawing of his fingernail grating along the stubble stood out against the silence. He sat for some time longer and then popped the trunk and stepped out.
The compact campground, shaded by a canopy of eucalyptus and oak, was much darker in the twilight than the unsheltered expanse of the parking lot. The young man walked towards the narrow horseshoe of campsites. At the first campsite was a one-man tent, the only pitched tent in the campground. Two sites up, a young woman was kneeling on a blue tarp, snapping together a tent pole. She wore a brown wool sweater and blue jeans patched at the knees and mottled with earth. The young man walked over to her and unloaded a backpack, two sleeping bags, and a half-full jumbo wine bottle.
“No luck?” the young woman said, glancing up at him as she fed the first pole into a sleeve that ran along the top of the tent.
He went to the other side of the splayed tent to receive the pole. “We’ll try again in the morning.”
“Poor Bessie.” She pinched the nylon with one hand and pushed the pole through with the other.
The young man buttoned up his flannel shirt and unfolded the collar, pulling it taut against his neck. “At least we’re at the campsite.”
“Not a bad place to have it happen.”
“On a mountain? I can think of better places.”
“For tonight at least it’s not a bad place,” the young woman said, smiling at him while clipping the pole end into place. “I see you brought the wine.”
The young man was looking at the first campsite where a small unattended fire in the standing firepit was casting a reddish glow. “We’re pretty close to that tent. I mean, of all the sites, we’re right next to it.”
The young woman stopped feeding the next pole into the sleeve and looked at him. “We can move. I just took the first spot that looked—”
“It’s all the same for you, one spot from another, isn’t it?” He looked down and shook his head.
The young woman released the tent pole and went over to the pile of sleeping bags and backpacks. She began loading them into her arms one at a time as if they were logs.
“What are you doing?” the young man demanded.
She bent at the knees and precariously reached for the wine. She placed the bottle under her right armpit. “Come on, let’s go to that site over there. Or choose wherever you want.”
The young man stared up at her. “No, it’s fine here. We already have the tent half up.”
The young woman turned and faced him with her arms full. Her shoulders were broad, but with her arms loaded down they hunched forward and from the front seemed even broader. She answered without pause, staring him square in the eyes. “We can move the tent once it’s pitched.”
“For Chrissake, I’m happy here! Could you please help me?” He wrenched the extruding end of the tent pole, causing the nylon farther down the sleeve to bunch.
The young woman’s mouth tightened, accentuating her cheekbones. She kept her eyes on him unblinkingly for some time and then set down her armload. The young man was yanking on the pole end.
“Hold on, it’s going to tear,” she said.
“Goddam thing is always jamming!” He jerked his hands off the pole.
The young woman pinched at the bunched sleeve where the nylon had snagged on one of the metal rod pole connectors. “Okay, go ahead.”
The young man pulled the pole. It slid through the sleeve easily and he sullenly clipped it in place.
They attached the rain tarp in silence and then staked the tent down. The young man opened his mouth several times as if to say something only to shut it each time.
“There’s not many sites here anyway,” he said finally, talking at the ground while staking down the tent. “It’s a tiny campground.”
The young woman did not look at him. She drove the last stake into the ground with the heel of her hand and then reached for the wine. She pulled the cork out with her teeth and looked back at him. “Cup or out of the bottle?”
The young man crouched and removed his driving cap. “There’s cups in my backpack.” He hung the cap off his knee and ran his hand through his hair.
She retrieved a coffee mug and a metal wine cup. She poured and handed him the metal cup. “To Bessie’s health,” she said, raising her mug.
The young man raised his cup. “To Bessie’s health.”
There was no firepit at their campsite but there was a three-foot standing grill over a burn pit. The young man collected some twigs and dry brush and soon thin licks of flames were flitting up between the grates.
“There’s no harm in collecting a few sticks,” the young man said, feeding a twig into the fire. He put his left palm over the grill where the flames licked up and took a drink.
“I think so,” the young woman said. She topped off his cup and then filled her own.
“A lot of regulations in this state. But makes sense, I guess. Need to leave wood for the forest.” He passed the cup to his left hand and put his right palm over the fire. “But hell, six bucks for a small bundle of firewood. Who’s got cash for that?” The young man stooped so his eyes were level with the flames, and he blew lightly on the burning twigs. The flames momentarily disappeared and a red-white glow flared out as the hot mass hissed.
“I think our fire’s great,” the young woman said, her breath pluming as she spoke. She pressed in to the grill.
The young man stopped blowing and the flames leapt up with new vigor. “Tomorrow’ll be our lucky day. We’ll get Bessie going and then find a place, cheap rent, near the water, no more of this hunting around.”
Night settled in. The couple stood around the grill, holding their drinks, warming their palms over the fire, their faces glowing so from a distance it seemed they were gazing into a crystal orb. A swath of the Milky Way was visible beyond the leaf canopy. Occasionally the traces of a man’s voice—a high-pitched talking and laughing—penetrated the quiet from higher up the mountain but soon that sound ended and there was only the whooshing and crackling of the fire consuming the twigs. They stood silently and gazed upon the flames, occasionally raising their cups to their lips without lowering their eyes.
A scuffling sound on the slope behind them broke the silence. It grew louder and sharper, finally cohering into the brittle sound of twigs snapping underfoot. A form emerged from the darkness, taking the shape of a squat man who descended with a loud stomping that gave the auditory impression he was twice his size. He came grunting and wheezing, and just as he was about to pass the couple, he wheeled and stopped before them. He didn’t wait to make eye contact before speaking. “Whoo-whee, didn’t I scare them Canadians out of their wits. Boy, they didn’t know what to think!”
He leaned back with his arms crossed and resting over his belly, then squinted at the two of them through his inset beady eyes. Though he was over a foot shorter than the young man, and almost a foot shorter than the woman, his elevated chin gave the impression he was looking down at them. His features seemed scrunched up within his round face, while his jowls puffed out, as if there were a constant stream of air pushing against the inside of his mouth. He had a thin, ratty mustache and high on his head wore a baseball cap with sky-blue netting in the back and thick dirty-white padding in the front. His hair winged out over his ears.
“Howdy neighbors. That’s me right there,” he said, nodding to the one-man tent. “Ranger came by earlier so I had to take off. He’d a gave me hell about collecting firewood. Fucked up laws here in California. Can’t even burn forest wood.”
The young man nodded. The older man peered out into the blackness beyond his campsite. “Anyway, he ain’t coming back again tonight. Not now.” The man paused and then laughed through his teeth. “Boy, them Canadians didn’t know what to think of me! They’re up the slope some. I went up there and pulled out a joint so big they didn’t know what to do with it.” He hissed out another laugh and rocked on his heels, shaking his head. “One of ’em didn’t even have a sleeping bag. He’s gonna freeze his bunnies off up there.”
There was a moment of silence and the young woman fed a twig into the grill. The older man grinned, revealing a crooked series of discolored teeth. “Boy, that’s some bonfire you got goin’ here.” He kept his eyes on the small fire in the grill while nodding toward his smoldering firepit. “I’ll get that baby rip-roaring soon if you wanna come warm yourselves. I dragged a few logs over earlier. I don’t play games. I’ve been riding all the way from Northern Idaho and I got to keep myself toasty.”
The young woman looked over at him as she snapped a stick in two. “On a bicycle?”
The man pressed his lips together as he nodded, proudly and slowly, as if following the trajectory of a bungee jumper coming to a standstill. “Goin’ to San Diego. I do it every year. That’s my bike right there.” He motioned to the dark form of a road bike leaning against an oak next to his tent. “Holds everything I need: my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, grub, whiskey, and all the grass I need to keep me smilin’.” His feet were firmly planted on the ground but he swayed as he spoke.
“That’s quite a ride,” the young man said.
“It’s a good ride. Course, there’s the cops. Washington’s a police state. Oregon ain’t bad.” He spat upwards into the darkness. “Course cops are part of the fun, that’s why I ride through Washington. Only been arrested once there. Cop pulled me over for D.U.I. on a bike. ‘I ain’t paying it,’ I told him. Christ you should’ve seen his expression. He didn’t know what to think of me. But the sheriff was cool with my randy. Shit, if I had a joint in my mouth he’d have asked me for a puff.” His lips retracted over his teeth as he giggled, his crossed arms bouncing on his belly. “Course I don’t mind the slammer. Three hots and a cot, that’s how I look at it.” He put his palm on his chin and pushed his head side to side, stretching his neck. “Well, I gotta get that fire going. Come on over if you wanna get toasty.” The man stomped off towards his site.
The cold was setting in on the mountain. The older man began dragging fallen branches towards his firepit while the couple fed the remaining twigs into the grill and finished off the bottle of wine along with a half-loaf of bread and a hunk of hard cheese.
The young woman hugged herself and lifted her shoulders with a shiver. “It’s getting cold. I’m heading for the sleeping bag.”
“I’ll be in soon,” the young man said, staring into the fire.
She looked at him for a moment and then slipped away from the small circle of light. The young man looked up at her with his eyes as she left. It was no longer as dark beyond the grill because the other fire now illuminated their site. He could even make out the patch on the seat of her jeans as she brushed her teeth, the pitch of the brushing rising and falling as she worked the gums from different angles. He watched her as she leaned over, spat out the toothpaste and climbed into the tent. From his campsite, the older man also watched.
The final few flames in the grill flickered out. The young man spread out the embers with a stick and then tucked his hands beneath his armpits. A loud hacking sound made him glance over at the older man. He was brilliantly illumined, standing before the upraised firepit, prodding the burning mass with a stick. The fire was crackling and spitting, and the entire area around the firepit was lit up. The young man cupped his hands together and blew into them several times. Then he rubbed them together forcefully and walked over to the fire.
The older man did not look up from the fire when the young man came. “Oh yeah, she’s burning good now,” the man said, prodding at the gnarled mass of burning branches and logs. “That’s how I like it.”
“I thought I’d come take advantage of your fire.”
The man anchored a fork of a wishbone-shaped branch against the ground with his heel and yanked an arm off. He tossed it into the fire. The tawny inner flesh of the wood instantly began to blacken. “Yep, I like to keep warm. When you’re on the go, you got to stay toasty.” The man had changed out of his pants into navy-blue long johns. The thinness of his legs was magnified by the tight-fitting long underwear. Under the enormity of his stomach, his thighs seemed absurdly out of proportion. “I go from here into my twenty below sleeping bag. Sleep nude in my bag. Stay toasty that way. I get up with the light but I stay in my bag for a couple of hours.” He nose crimped up as he drew mucus into his mouth, and he spat into the firepit. The mucus hit a branch and hung from it, dangling and sizzling in the fire. “Gotta get that shit out. I don’t keep it in.”
The standing firepit was like the grill but larger and propped up on a concrete foundation instead of a pole. There were three brick side walls upon which the thick steel grill rested. On the grill was a tin pot. The man looked into the pot and then emptied into it a packet of noodles and powder, tossing the packaging into the flames. The wrapper shriveled with a thick stinking smoke and vanished into feathery black shards.
“Ramen’s easy. Cooks fast,” he said, shaking the pot by the handle. He crammed some more branches into the fire. The branches protruded out far beyond the opening of the firepit and it seemed like the whole flaming mass might tumble out any moment.
The man removed the pot from the grill and peered into it. Satisfied, he grabbed a fork off the concrete wall and began to eat. He chewed loudly, and when he spoke, bits of noodle flew from his mouth.
“It ain’t meat but it does the job. Me, I like to eat meat. I like to hunt. I like to kill things.” He looked over at the young man, who was watching him without any change of expression, and then returned his gaze to the inside of the pot. “My wife, she ate that goddam tofu,” he said, accenting the ‘u.’ He upended the pot over his mouth, shaking out any remaining noodles, and then tossed it behind him. A few noodles hung out from the corners of his mouth and he leaned forward, tucking his chin in, and slurped them up. His tongue swept around his mouth and he wiped his lips with the stained bottom of his T-shirt. There was a light coat of fuzz on his taut, exposed belly. When he released the T-shirt, it came down just short of his bellybutton. “Me, I don’t eat that tofu crap,” he said, then swallowed his mouthful of noodles. “I like to shoot my food. I go out in the woods and get me my meat.”
“I’ve only fished, never hunted,” the young man said. “But I’d like to. If I’m going to eat meat, I’d rather hunt the animal in the forest. It’s a better way to kill an animal than the way they do it in—”
“Yep, animals are to be killed and eaten. Hunting’s the best. I use an AK-47. I use bullets this big.” He held apart a stubby blackened thumb and forefinger. “They make a big ol’ bang when you fire.” He reached behind him and began searching the ground. He came back with a joint in his hand. “I skin ’em too. Most people, they don’t know how to skin an animal—”
“Yeah, I don’t,” the young man interrupted, watching the man’s face intently.
The man glanced at him briefly and then went down to the joint in his hand. “Oh, I do it all. I track ’em, I hunt ’em, I skin ’em. Course I let the woman do the cooking. But if I wanna do it, oh, I can cook, all right. I make a mean elk heart stew. Heart’s the best part. I eat it first.” He gazed at the young man from the corner of his eyes.
“Don’t know if I’ve ever tried heart—”
“Heart’s got all the life of the animal in it. Makes you strong.” The man sniffled sharply and pushed his chest forward. He pulled a thin branch out from the fire and, after blowing out the delicate flame, lit the joint with the stick’s glowing end. The tips of his thumb and forefinger vanished inside his lips when he put the joint to his mouth. He inhaled with a loud sucking sound, his face straining theatrically. When he spoke, it was with the hoarse choked voice that results from trying to speak with full lungs: “Makes you goddam strong, strong as an ox.”
“But then again, oxen are vegetarians,” the young man murmured into the fire.
The man exhaled a plume of white smoke with a deflating noise. The smoke lingered in the air between them while the man shook his head, his cheeks making a fleshy flapping sound. He took a few more drags and then offered the joint. The young man looked at the hand, almost studying it, then nodded and took the joint. The man crammed two gnarled branches into the fire while the young man took two drags, coughing after the first one, then passed the joint back. The flames had settled and a reverse waterfall of soft pearly smoke rushed upwards, outlining the undersides of the burning branches.
“Yep, I like to get fuckin’ ripped,” the older man said. He inhaled and then craned his neck and exhaled skywards. He kicked in one of the logs that were hanging out precariously from the fire, sending off a rain of sparks that zipped and billowed above them. The young man glanced up at the foliage draping low over them. The man paused to brush off a red bit of burning matter that had landed on his arm and then continued: “Wouldn’t mind a case of beer right now. I’d suck them brewskies down, every one of them. I like my brew. One time I went to Amsterdam with my boys and we went to the Heineken Brewery. You get about a half-hour or so of all you can drink for free.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there.”
The man took a drag and nodded. “Whoo-whee, on the third time they kicked us out. We scared ’em. Goddam did we scare ’em.” He paused for another quick puff. “There was a German couple sitting by us, they thought they were big German drinkers and all. One point I leaned in towards them. Told them, ‘I got two words for you: Fuck You.’ Took ’em a while to figure it out.” He broke into a wheezing laugh and his squinting eyes seemed to momentarily recede and vanish in the contracting sockets. He passed the joint. “Yep, Amsterdam. Took my own grass out there. ‘Thunder Fuck.’ One hundred percent Idaho homegrown.” He threw another branch into the fire, which was now hissing and occasionally popping in small explosions that sent flying kernels of live coal. The woods around the perimeter of firelight reeled in and out of shadow.
“So what’s your wife think of you taking off and biking to San Diego?” the young man said, passing the joint back.
Again the strained hoarse voice as the man held the smoke in his lungs: “My wife?” He sniggered and his face erupted in smoke. “Oh I’ll tell you about my wife…” He took another strenuous drag and then offered the stub.
“Thanks, I’m good.”
The man shrugged and put the stub to his lips. His eyes closed and his body arched back as he inhaled. The young man watched him. The cherry glowed between his thumb and forefinger in the center of his puckered lips. Then his head jerked back and he yanked his fingers from his mouth, flinging the red stub into the fire. His eyes still shut, he exhaled slowly through his mouth and nose. When he opened his eyes, his eyelids barely came up and his eyes were two bloodshot cracks.
“Hot little bastard,” the man murmured, examining the tips of his thumb and forefinger. He then put his palms up to the fire and wiggled his body, settling in on his heels. “My wife, she used to leave me for a week at a time. I get mean on tequila and she didn’t like that.”
His slivered eyes swung over to the young man, who was staring into the fire.
“I get mean on tequila all right.”
The young man’s expression didn’t change and the eyes swung back.
“She took off a bunch of times. So the last time she did it, I packed up her bags. She came back and found her stuff, all nice and neat in the corner. She got the message. That was two years ago and I haven’t seen her since. Best two years of my life.”
The man flipped his hands so now the backs were facing the fire. His face shone amber in the firelight. The breeze shifted and the smoke blew in his direction but he didn’t flinch.
“She used to come home every day and nag me.” With a mocking expression he began to caricature her voice: “You’re mean, you’re evil.” He flipped his hands back around and stepped to the right, moving out of the thick rolling smoke. “And I’d say, ‘So what? We all got some of it in us.’”
The young man looked aslant at the man. He took his cap off and began rubbing the side of his head.
“Yep, I had enough of her. I’m going down to Diego where the girls are nekkid. I told my brother, ‘You’re up in the cold where the girls are clothed. I’m goin’ down where the girls are nekkid, gettin’ a piece.’”
The young man stopped rubbing his head. His hand, pressed as it was against his temple, shielded his eyes from the man’s view, and the young man glanced toward his campsite. The tent was visible, lightly illumined by the fire.
The man’s voice suddenly took on an inquisitive tone. “What you got there?” He pointed at an object hanging out of the young man’s flannel shirt pocket.
“It’s a flashlight.” The young man pulled out the flashlight and began to wind the handle. The flashlight whirred. “It doesn’t need batteries. With fifty turns you get light for a few minutes.”
The man’s hand reached out. “Mind if I look?”
The young man handed him the flashlight. “It makes some noise when you charge it, but it works pretty well. There’s two brightness levels to help conserve the charge.”
The man turned it over in his small meaty hands. He gave the handle a few revolutions and whistled through his teeth. “I’ll be damned.” He pressed the on-button and pointed the beam into the dark of the woods, then shut it off and handed it back. “The batteries on my flashlight are always running out.” His eyes followed the flashlight as the young man returned it to his shirt-pocket. “Looks like it could come in handy. I been looking for batteries for a couple a days now. Looks like it could come in real handy.”
The young man looked down and shifted in place. Then he looked up at him. “What kind of batteries?”
“Two double A’s.”
“I think I’ve got some you can have.”
“That’d be a real help.”
“I’ll go check.” The young man set off for his campsite. Halfway there he stopped abruptly. He stood momentarily with his head down and then turned back. The man again had his palms up to the fire.
“They’re actually in the car…” The young man went silent. His face was immobile. Then he cleared his throat and brought the flashlight out of his pocket. He looked at the man, who was examining the backs of his hands. “I’ll be right back.” The man went on staring at his hands without responding.