The One Man Tent (Part II)
This the second half of the short story One Man Tent. Read the first half here.
He again began to cross the parking lot. The Oldsmobile was the only vehicle there. He pulled the key chain from his pocket while he walked and ran his fingers over the various keys until he located the right one. At the car door, he missed the keyhole and, fumbling, lost the key. With the flashlight, he found the right key and stabbed it into the keyhole. There was a click and he yanked on the door. It was locked. The car had been unlocked and now he had locked the front door. He abandoned the driver’s door and flung open the back door instead. The flashlight momentarily illuminated the interior—a disarray of clothes, brown bags of food, books, loose leaves of paper, and several potted plants—but the beam suddenly died. He cursed and began to furiously wind the handle but soon stopped: the stars and crescent moon emitted just enough light to outline the headlamp under the rear window. He jerked its back rubber compartment open and dug out the two AA batteries. His breath came out in thick milky plumes and the sound of his breathing filled the car. Then he dropped the headlamp and back-scrabbled out. He slammed the door shut and began to head back towards the woods, only to hurry back to get the keys, which he had left dangling from the front door lock. He sped-walk across the first half of the parking lot, and then ran the rest of the way. At the bend he slowed to gain control over his breathing, and then he rounded the bend casually. The man was still there, warming himself by the fire. The only change was that he had flipped his hands around.
The young man approached him slowly. He brought the two batteries out of his back pocket and offered them. “I don’t know how much punch they’ve still got—” he said, pausing to draw a quiet gasp of breath, “but they should hold you through awhile.”
The man peered at the batteries as if they were unearthed arrowheads, then plucked them from the young man’s hand. He held the batteries up to his face and carefully rolled them around in his sausage fingers. Some of the knots in his face relaxed. “Yeah, these’ll do fine.” He stared at the batteries and when he spoke again it was in a low muffled voice. “Yeah, that’s a real help.”
The young man stretched his arms back. “Well, I’m beat. Thanks for the smoke.”
The man clenched the batteries and crossed his arms over his belly. He stared into the fire and nodded. “Yep, I’ll pack it in soon too. After I burn down some more wood. And maybe another jibber.”
The young man went to his campsite and unzipped the tent without climbing in. On his knees, he extended an arm, groping along the tent floor. His hand touched a warm slumbering body. The young man sighed. He stood, finished off the remains of a water jug, urinated and then climbed into the tent. His eyes gradually adjusted to the dark. She was facing away from him, one arm under her head and the other extended above her, the wrist slightly bent and the palm up. Her body was clearly outlined under the limpid sleeping bag, which rose and fell with her breathing. The young man leaned over her, propped up on one arm, and ran the backs of his fingers along her hair. The head of the young woman jerked up and spun towards the hand, her eyes open and tense. Then her eyes focused on him and closed again as she murmured, turning towards him. He lay on his back and her head came down, settling upon his shoulder. The side of her face was marked with rosy blotches and creased with the lines of the wrinkled sheet she had been sleeping on. Her fingers lightly stroked his chest, and then the fingers slowed and stopped, and her breathing again became heavy and regular.
The young man lay with his eyes wide open, staring at the low peak of the tent. The crackling of the fire was audible as was the occasional rending of a branch being snapped in two. The young man put his hand down to his right pants pocket to confirm his pocket knife. Then he kicked off his hiking boots and carefully moved away from the young woman. She slid off him and, still sleeping, made herself comfortable on her side. Then he slipped, fully clothed, into the sleeping bag alongside her. He lay for a long time, his eyes rigidly staring up, and soon there were no more sounds of fire or breaking branches. He finally slept, his hand in his right pocket.
The sun was up in the foliage when the young man emerged from the tent, holding his hiking boots. He squinted and turned his head away. As he stepped into the boots, he looked over at the neighboring campsite. The tent was still up and the bicycle was leaning against the tree, but the man was nowhere in sight.
The young woman was sitting, reading a book, her knees up and her back against a towering eucalyptus. Just above her head the enormous trunk branched off into five slimmer trunks that ascended beyond sight into the foliage. She looked up from the book as he approached and straightened her left leg, digging into her pocket. She fished out a pair of keys, which she dangled in the air before him.
The young woman nodded. “Bessie came through for us. She’s a tough girl.”
The young man sat beside her and leaned his head back against the peeling trunk. “It was all that driving.” He picked a eucalyptus leaf from the ground and mashed it in his fist. “She’s not used to California. She just wanted some rest.”
“I think she deserves a treat for that. Maybe a checkup.”
“We could give her a good waxing.”
The young woman gave him a sharp side glance and then curtly returned to her book. “Bessie’s a country bumpkin. She’s not into wax jobs.”
“You never know till you try. Everyone’s got upper crust cravings in them.”
The young woman did not raise her eyes from the book. “You can wax her. I’ll get her a checkup.”
The young man blew away the fragments of crushed eucalyptus leaf. He stood up and then headed towards the parking lot, smelling his hand as he went.
By the time the older man emerged, hacking and spitting, from his tent, the couple had already dismantled their tent and folded up the tarp. They were sitting next to each other on the campsite’s wooden picnic table. A green speckled coffeepot was heating over a gas camp stove.
The man went over to the oak tree, stretched with a loud grunt, and then spat on the closest limb. The mucus hung from the branch, lengthened viscously, and came to a stop, swinging lightly in the morning breeze. He went over to the firepit and started piling twigs. As he worked, he glanced furtively at the picnic table where the couple sat.
The coffeepot was soon boiling and the young man shut off the gas valve on the fuel canister. He looked at the pot and then over at the man standing by the firepit. The man had his arms crossed and was facing down the fire in a kind of reckoning as if it were a fierce beast he had captured. The young man rubbed his forehead. “Want some coffee?” he called out to the man.
The older man looked up at the young man and then, after a pause that gave the appearance of deliberation, he emptied out his mug and went over to the picnic table. He was in green sweatpants and a tight thermal shirt that outlined his protruding nipples. He still wore his baseball cap, and his hair winged out over one ear, but on the other side the hair was compressed against his head where he had slept. He swung himself into the picnic table and sat across from the couple.
“Yep, wouldn’t mind some coffee at all. Good for clearing the ol’ la ca-bay-za in the morning.”
The young man filled the three mugs. The couple sat with both hands around their mugs and their faces low in the steam of the coffee. The older man held his head high and brought the mug from the table to his lips and back again.
“How’d you sleep?” the young woman asked.
“Oh, I always sleep good. Grass is good for it.” He picked at the inner corner of his left eye and laughed. “It was nippy last night. I bet that one Canadian’s trying to thaw his bunnies out right now.” The man looked at his fingertip, then rubbed it against the edge of the picnic table.
“So how long have you been in Idaho?”
“Oh, I lived there all my life. It’s a good place. Gets cold but it’s a good place. More free there than most places in America.”
“Government don’t control us as much. Though they try. They try take our guns away. Oh, they come knocking all the time. See, I’m part of the Idaho militia. Government comes, they wanna take our guns. I’ll tell you, there’ll be a revolution when government says we can’t have our guns. Freedom to have guns is the last freedom in this country.” He paused to slurp from his mug. The tip of his tongue ran along his mustache. “Yeah, they come but they’re scared. I remember one time a cop came to my door, the first thing I did was hand him a box of bullets. I gave it to him all quiet and smiling. Scared the shit out of him. Government wants to take our guns away so we can’t fight back. And take our money too. And what do they give us? Jack shit.”
“So who do you think benefits from the taxes?” the young man said.
“Oh, the government. Sitting back, living well and doing nothing.”
“What about corporations?”
There was a pause.
The man shrugged and slurped at his coffee.
“You think corporations benefit from the taxes?” the young man insisted.
The man came up from his coffee and shrugged again. “It’s the government that takes our money. That’s why I’m a tax resister.”
“What do you do with the money?” the young man said.
“Keep it. I aint gonna give it to them. Why? So they can give it to them Africans?”
The young man looked down into his mug. When he spoke it was in a low voice. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t say that we—”
“I say we stop giving AIDS money and let So-malia and the rest of them rot. We should close our borders too. Goddam immigrants taking all our jobs.” The young man stared into his mug and swished the coffee around. When the man began speaking again, the young man looked up at him without raising his head. “I been with the militia a long time. Used to be part of the American Nazi party too.”
There was a silence. “What’s that about?” the young woman said.
As if waiting for the question, he raised a fist and his face took on a glowing solemnity. “White power.” The pride left his face but his hand remained a fist after he brought it back down to the table. He finished off his coffee. “But I got away from those ideals—”
“I’m glad to hear it,” the young woman said.
“Yeah, mostly cause the cops were watching us.” The young woman looked away. She took the coffeepot and made a round refilling. “Cops are always on your back,” he continued. “I hate law enforcement.”
“You don’t think there’s good cops?” she said, pouring the last of the coffee.
There was silence for a moment and the sound of the coffee being poured was clean and musical. The man looked into his mug. “Yeah, I guess there’s good cops…” Then his face came up and hardened. “But I got no use for them. Kinda like blacks.” He glanced over at the young woman and took a slow deliberate drink. “Course, blacks out in the country are okay. But in the inner city, I say give ’em a bullet. Same with Arabs. I don’t have much use for Arabs.”
The young man had not moved, his shoulders hunched in, head low over his mug, eyes fixed on the older man across the table. The young woman was also staring, but upright and rigid, at the man.
“Yep,” he continued. “A good Arab is a dead Arab. Arabs got no respect for our culture and I got none for theirs. There was an Arab guy at a convenience store down the road from me, a dark dirty fella. I told him that my militia buddies were gonna come after him. I put five thousand bucks on his head. He closed down that seven-eleven and disappeared like that—” The man snapped his fingers and wheezed with pleasure. “With five thousand bucks you get most anyone knocked off. There’s plenty of hate groups on the Internet. Most of them do it how you want it done. If you’re gonna go after somebody, you’re trying to hurt them. You want them to suffer as long as possible before they expire.”
The young man was still hunched over the mug but his eyes moved away from the man, over to his campsite, passing over the smoking fire, the one-man tent, the bicycle perched against the oak tree from which the mucus still hung, and then his eyes went out beyond the campsite, looking at nothing. The young man brought his hands down flat on the table and stood up. He looked down at the man and focused in on his beady eyes, which, just on him, slipped away. The young woman also stood up.
“We’ve got to get going,” the young man said. “A lot to do today.”
The man shifted and his balled hand flexed for a moment. “Yep, me too. I’ve got to make it down past Frisco.” He remained seated.
The couple stepped out from the picnic table and gathered up their camping gear. The young man returned to the table with a pack on his back and a sleeping bag under one arm.
“Interesting talking to you,” the young man said. He took the coffeepot and the stove with his free hand. “Good luck with the rest of your trip.”
The older man looked at them and said nothing.
“Take care,” the young woman said, and she and the young man began to walk towards the parking lot.
“Do… do you guys want to brew up another pot of coffee?”
They turned and looked back. His elbows were on the table and his body was leaning down heavily on them, his head sagging into his shoulders. They stood silently, looking at him. The sunlight penetrating the foliage made a brilliant patchwork on his body that shifted with the breeze.
“I’m afraid we’ve got to go get Bessie checked out,” the young woman said. “I mean our car… that’s Bessie—” she qualified. She let out an abrupt clipped laugh and then turned sharply and began to walk towards the parking lot. The young man paused and looked at the man sitting at the table. They stared at each other without speaking, the leaves rustling overhead, the light playing between them. Then the young man turned and followed the young woman.
The older man watched them as they walked away and rounded the bend. He sat quietly for some time, pushing the mug back and forth on the table. Then he murmured something to himself and inflated his chest, stepping out from the picnic table. He went over to the firepit and broke some sticks and jammed them into the fire. The fire picked up. He threw all the sticks and twigs around him into the flames and, when there was nothing left to burn, he stood before the firepit with his arms crossed. In the distance a car engine roared to life. The sound of the motor climbed in pitch and then faded away into silence.
The man stood immobile before the fire. His face was like marble except for the bottom rims of his eyes, which glistened and shimmered, mirroring the flames. Then he dug his heels into the ground and, putting his palms up, spat between his hands into the fire.