Chapter 8

IT WAS DARK by the time Tom reached his cabin. He poured some water into a basin, washed his face in the cold water, put on an additional sweat shirt, ignoring the bulk in favor of the added warmth, and loaded the bucket of sewage into his van along with the bottle of wine. Using a rope, he secured the bucket to a tie hook on the side of the van and checked the lid--he had pictured the consequences of a spill in the van and, though amusing to contemplate, lived in dread of the actual possibility. The five-gallon plastic paint bucket that Tom used for a toilet was almost filled to capacity. He thought for a moment of the tiled, carpeted bathrooms he had known in his "other life"--a life more influenced by women--then he double-checked the knot he had tied and the lid. Both were secure.

Tom drove down the road till he came to the edge of the State Park where an old dirt road, once a haul road for logging and now overgrown in manzanita, huckleberry, and salal, led to Michael’s and Maria’s camp site--the "free one," as Michael said, until you were spotted by the park ranger. He drove in just far enough that the van could not be spotted from the road, then parked.

As Tom got out of the van with the jug of wine, he could see the little fire ahead through the trees. Apparently tonight they were taking the risk of being spotted. A small table was set up outside the trailer, and Maria, her legs stretched out carelessly, was sitting on a low cloth camp stool at the side of the table with her guitar in her lap strumming it. Michael was crouching over two fish cooking on a grate laid on a circle of rocks around a fire. A jug of wine already sat upon the table that was set with tin plates, canning jar wine glasses, and aluminum silverware.

"I hear Mr. Yellow has problems," said Maria, strumming a new chord as Tom walked into the little clearing at the side of the trailer.

"No big ones," Tom said.

"Bring the stuff?" Michael asked looking up from the fish.

"Yeah," said Tom looking a little embarrassed. "I brought some wine too. Can I pour you some Hardy Camper Cabernet?"

"What year?" asked Michael.

"It doesn’t seem to say," Tom replied.

"Good. Pour me some," said Michael.

"Me too," said Maria.

Tom unscrewed the cap, scrutinized the Surgeon General’s warning about pregnancy and operating heavy equipment--"Anyone planning to use a fork lift this evening?" he asked--then filled three glasses to the brim.

Maria took a little sip, "Oh, oh, hermanos, amigos!", smacked her lips and began to sing:

Ahora vive mi corozón . . . :

My heart now lives in the woods
My heart is warmed by fire,
And of your eyes, my love
I will never tire.
But life comes in a moment
To tease and not to please
So I fear, my love, an end
That nothing can appease.

"Ay, No, that last line will not do," said Maria. "Tan triste, tan triste."

She began to sing again, louder, but Michael interrupted her.

"Hey, babe, I like your song, it’s beautiful, but can you keep it down a little. I didn’t like the look of that guy who came over earlier."

Michael explained that one of the paying campers--"a guy driving around in his house and towing a car or a jeep in back of him"--stumbled into their camp earlier.

"He had that surprised look on his face--the look that means, ‘I may report you.’ I didn’t care for the dude."

Maria said okay and strummed softer.

"Hey, maybe we better get down to business and dump your stuff," said Michael, turning serious. "These fish need about another twenty minutes."

Michael said that they could dump Tom’s stuff right down a park restroom toilet--"I’ll flush and you’ll pour--slowly, of course, or it’ll go all over the place." The main trick, he said, was not getting caught.

Tom got the bucket and they headed off through the trees.

"There’s bozo’s camp site," said Michael as they passed by a big rig--the same one that had passed Tom on the road earlier.

"Lit up like a fuckin’ house, TV and everything," said Michael. The flickering light of a TV screen could be seen on the drawn shades of the trailer.

Tom, detecting a note of jealousy in Michael, asked in a hushed voice: "Well, would you want to live in that thing?" The two stood about thirty feet away from the trailer.

"No, not really," said Michael. "But I wouldn’t mind owning the damned thing so I could sell it and . . ."

Suddenly a shade went up and ghostly bright white light streamed into the woods, and Michael and Tom moved on towards the restrooms, Tom carrying the bucket that was now beginning to feel very heavy.

As they came to the edge of a grove facing the restrooms, Michael said, "Wait here, Tom, till I see if there’s anyone over there." Michael started out of the grove towards the restrooms.

Just then the headlights of a large pickup appeared in the road approaching the restrooms, and Michael hurried back into the grove of trees where Tom held the bucket.

"Park ranger," said Michael. "I don’t think he saw me but we had better wait. Why don’t you put that down," he said seeing the strain in Tom’s face. "This one ranger is a real son of a . . ."

Michael held his words as the bright beam of a flashlight panned the woods around them.

They stood silent and unmoving until the woods remained dark and they heard the truck drive away. Michael then went over and checked the restrooms: there was no one else there.

"Okay, buddy, let’s do it. Any lights show up and we just stay put in there till they go away."

They went inside. The fixtures in the restroom were bright, shiny, powerful, new, and clean. It was tiled but not carpeted.

"Run this place like a hotel now," said Michael. "Clean twice a day. Okay, I flush and you pour--slowly, please! We don’t want to leave a mess and make management mad."

So Tom poured and Michael flushed, and when they were done Michael smiled. "Great," he said, "the evidence is gone. Now all they could get us for is a dirty bucket."

Feeling relieved, and in more ways than one for Tom, they headed back to the camp site. As they passed by the big camper rig, they saw again the flicker of the television on the drawn blinds.

"Asshole," Michael muttered softly.

"How’d it go?" Maria asked as they walked into the light of the campfire, Tom clutching the empty bucket.

"Great," said Michael. "Mr. Yellow’s a natural. Now all we got to do is get him some paint."

"Well, not tonight," said Maria. "Sit down. The fish is ready. I took it off the grate, you were gone so long."

Tom poured more wine--three glasses full to their tops. They toasted pregnant women and fork lift operators everywhere, and then they sat at the table and pulled big chunks of meat off the steelhead that Michael had caught earlier that day in a net--not exactly legal but Fish & Game code was written for sportsmen, which Michael was not, and had altogether failed to consider hungry Californians. And Michael sliced up two big tomatoes that had fallen from the back of a produce truck earlier that day and that he, by some miracle, had caught just before they plunged to their destruction on the asphalt. "Good tomatoes deserve more respect than that," he had told Maria. "Lucky I was there."

Ironically, the bread and wine were the only part of the meal that had not been supplied "gratis," as freely given gifts of the Creator. Both had been purchased with hard cash.

Maybe tomorrow the creator will be more generous," said Michael raising his glass high, then adding, "but at least today we are all here together."

Just then a bright beam of light intruded upon the camp site and the table. A ranger with a rifle appeared in the dim glow of the camp fire.

"You’re outta here, you son of a bitch. I’ve been trying to figure out where you were for days," said the tall ranger with the short, dark, wiry beard as he aimed the rifle at the three diners and the two partially devoured steelhead on the table.

"Start packing!"

Michael stood up from the table. "How would it be, Sherlock Holmes, if we finished our meal? The night is long and there is plenty of time to be gone by morning."

"Start packing now!" said the ranger, kicking dirt into the campfire. "Think you’re so god-damn smart, don’t you! Think everything is free!"

"Think everything is free, don’t you! Think you’re so god-damn smart!" said Michael mimicking the ranger and walking towards him.

"Michael, don’t," Maria shouted from the table and grabbed her guitar and began to strum.

"No, I don’t think I’m so smart," shouted Michael at the ranger, "but I do know when I’m hungry. What if you don’t . . ."

"Don’t come any closer," said the ranger.

Michael took one more step forward, screaming, "What if you don’t have the fare? What if you don’t . . ." when the ranger squeezed the trigger of the 30-caliber rifle and the woods boomed and echoed the angry sound as Michael jerked backwards, then toppled to the ground and Maria rose from her chair like an enraged beast, swinging the guitar and charging the tall bearded man. The sounding box of the instrument broke and splintered in his face as Tom tore the rifle from his hands and Maria clubbed him with the fret board until he fled into the woods.

Then it was silent and dark in the woods, and it seemed like all time stopped, or condensed and collided into a single moment, in an atmosphere mysteriously charged yet utterly quiet.

Then there were more lights--rotating orange and yellow and red lights on the tops of vehicles and bright beams of pure white light--and the woods were lit up as though it were day, and something limp was being placed on a stretcher, then moved slowly to the back of a vehicle, for there was no need to hurry with a body so quiet and motionless; and a voice was saying, "He came at me with an ax, you can see what he did, there was no choice . . . extreme danger . . ."; and another voice was coolly saying, "Yes, officer, saw ‘em both from my window . . . keeping an eye on ‘em . . . don’t trust . . . bucket or something . . . ."

After another eternity passed under oaks and pine strangely illuminated by intruding vehicles--the woods themselves looked under assault--Tom and Maria were free to go. No charge could be construed for carrying a bucket, even a dirty one. And as for Maria, the trailer was registered in Michael’s name.

As Tom led Maria out of the woods--he would move the trailer in the morning, he had promised an official in a dark brown uniform--she stopped, turned, hesitated for a moment, then shouted: "Hey, you, cabron, Mr. Ranger, look at me: you are a fucking murdering park pig lying asshole! Even the trees here hate you!"

She scooped up a handful of dirt and leaves to toss, but Tom stopped her. That would only prolong things here, and he had seen enough of the unholy light.


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