The man called John Peters stopped at the barrier marking the end of the road. Beyond the barrier was a plowed and leveled wasteland. The barrier itself was ordinary, bureaucratic: a length of metal guardrail on square wooden posts, two yellow reflectors, diamond-shaped, and a sign, also diamond-shaped, on a metal pole, with the words "ROAD ENDS" in plain lettering. The guardrail and one of the reflectors were bent inwards where a car had hit them. There was no other trace of a crash. No skid marks. It had evidently happened long ago, but no one had thought it worth the trouble to repair the barrier. There was no reason to go there. There were other wastelands, even more remote ones, if one were seeking wastelands for whatever reason, for example, to shoot a .22 at bottles and cans, a traditional entertainment in these parts. Indeed, the reflectors and the sign bore the pockmark scars of small-caliber bullets, and there were pierced tin cans and the shards of shattered bottles here and there in the dirt. The cans were old and rusty, the broken glass dim with dust. No one had played there for a while. The grass was growing slowly back over the roughly-plowed pale soil, although a continuing drought slowed even the grass. It was a broad, flat field, hard to walk on, impossible to drive on, unpleasant to look upon. That made it perfect for John Peters.
John Peters felt comfortable there. It was not often that Peters could feel comfortable. People and their social demands wearied him. They were always asking him if he was all right, just because he was a quiet type. He was fine left alone, but folks couldn't seem to understand that. What he did not need was to talk. People asking him questions he would never know the answers to, or at least not the answers they wanted. Some of them stupid questions, about sports teams. Some of them about his family. He couldn’t talk about sports, and he wouldn't talk about his family. His parents had been good enough, but not more. He was never beaten, never hungry, never loved. Decency was overrated. His parents were decent people, that was all. People who defined themselves by the bad things they did not do.
By that standard, John Peters was decent too. He had never killed anyone, not even in war or self-defense, he had never stolen anything more valuable than a packaged hand pie, now and then, from a convenience store, when he was a teenager; he had never intentionally cheated anyone, and he tried not to lie. The best way not to lie was not to talk. He had learned that much at least from other people. When they talked, they often lied. Young men especially, whom he had learned to mistrust: they gave him bad directions, so he walked for hours and ended up at the gate to a garbage dump instead of the promised campground by a quiet stream. But he had learned to read the landscapes of America, and he had found the wasteland. Quiet and empty and apparently ignored. A line of trees beyond it at the foot of a low hill, indicating a stream. He walked around the barrier and onto the lumpy pale dirt with its dry stems waving in the breeze. It was hard to walk across it, as he had known it would be. That was for the better.
He crossed it in a sort of controlled stumble till he came to the creek. He heard the creek before he saw it, and he smelled the wetness before he heard it. The boundary of the wasteland was not the straight line it once had been; green plants were edging into the plowed-up area from the shallow gulch of the creek: vine-like plants and patches of limp grass. He stopped and breathed in the moister air, listening to it move in and out of his lungs. A creek was a wondrous thing in dry country. And this one was still running in late summer. The call of a small bird sounded over the ripple of water. Sycamore and oak trees leaned out of the gulch. The sycamores would lose their leaves soon but were still green; the oaks, in this part of the country, would never lose their leaves. These were things he had learned without asking, without looking them up. Although his father had taught him the names of trees, from drawings in a book. It had taken him a while to apply that knowledge to actual trees, with branches that grew in strange twists and moved when there was wind. He looked left and right and saw no paths into the gully. That was what he had been hoping for. It made it less likely there would be trash there, though he had found trash in the most remote places he had been able to go to. He had never gotten far enough from roads. But this place might work out for a couple of nights, till he had to buy food again. He walked to the edge of the gulch. It wasn't deep. Maybe ten feet to the creek, maybe less. The slope was gentle. The shade looked cool. He worked his way down the slope, careful not to break too many plants, it was their place, really, not his. Once in the cool of the shade he worked his way downstream till he found a flat spot and shucked off his knapsack. Home at last, if only for a moment.
The first thing he heard when he woke up to the gray of dawn was a dry voice grunting the word, "Shit." He turned his head and saw a lean middle-aged man in a plaid shirt and blue jeans standing about ten feet away and looking down at him. A sandy-haired white man of the sort you saw in gas stations and small stores in this part of the country. The man carried a small satchel on his shoulder but wore no hat. He did not look particularly happy. Of course he wouldn't. He had the sour look of a disappointed man. John Peters assumed that he himself was the source of disappointment. The man's next words proved him largely correct in his assumption. "Didn't expect to find someone here. You're going to have to move on, buddy. Looks like you keep a clean camp, and I appreciate that, but this is my creek, and I want you out."
"Good morning to you too," John Peters said. It was more than he wanted to say, but he was in no position to argue. Still, he went on: "If you don't mind my asking, what makes it 'your' creek? I didn’t see a mailbox anywhere."
The man in plaid laughed. "Hey, that's a good one. Not good enough, but I like it. So: what makes it my creek is a deed registered in the county office. I own it fair and square, for all the good it does me, and I don't want bums living on it."
"I'm not a bum," John Peters said. "I've got a property too. A fourplex down in Riverside. I live in one of the units. I'm just on vacation."
"Well, this ain't no timeshare, buddy. I've lost enough money on this plot without giving it away to bums. Even if you're not a real bum. Not that I believe you anyway."
"Maybe I shouldn't believe you either."
The plaid man squatted down and scratched his head. "You got a point there, buddy. I could be a bum myself. A clean bum, like you. But you still gotta go. There's cell service here, thanks to Sam Collins's goddamn development over the hill, and I can call the sheriff right now for you if you want. He'll tell you I really do own this creek. At least the bit of it that runs by my field." He pointed upstream. "Now, if you went up past that dead oak there, I couldn't tell you a thing. Though I still wouldn't be too happy to see you. You don't smoke, do you?"
"Never have. Mind if I get out of this sleeping bag and take a leak?"
"Be my guest. Not literally, though."
John Peters worked his way out of the bag, conscious of the sliding sound the nylon made as he moved. He clambered up the bank to a stand of dry bushes he had noted earlier and took care of his business. When he turned around he saw that the plaid man was conscientiously not looking in his direction. He came back, poured some water over his hands, then dried them on a towel he kept in the net pocket of his knapsack.
"Glad to see you washed up. Still won't shake hands with you, though. Hope you don't mind." The man stood up. "Jerry Dawes."
"John Peters." They nodded at each other in lieu of the handshake.
"You still got to go. Hope you don't mind."
"It's a nice creek. But I'll go. I'm not out to cause trouble. Just to find some quiet. How come you lost money here?"
Dawes told him a story of banks and loans, ambition and recession. "Bad timing, I guess. I shoulda got greedy earlier in the game. You make much off your fourplex?"
"Enough not to go hungry. Keep the tax man off my back. I got good tenants, they don't bother me much and they're clean."
"How much the loan costing you? If you don't mind my asking. Seeing as I'm trying to do the same thing on a larger scale."
"No loan," John Peters said. He remembered a phrase he'd heard somewhere: "Got my property the old-fashioned way. I inherited it."
"You look kind of young for an inheritance."
"My grandfather couldn’t stand his own kid, my dad, so his will skipped around him. They never got along."
"That piss off your dad?
"I suppose it did, but he's a quiet type. I think if he'd gotten it, he woulda just sold it off and pissed away the money and blamed it on God or the Democrats or something. Guess Granddad had him figured out."
"Looks like he had you figured out too."
"If he did, he was ahead of me. But I don't waste my money. This is my idea of a good time." John Peters gestured vaguely toward the creek."Didn't think anybody owned it."
"Guess somebody somewhere owns damn near everything, even if it's just the Feds. By the way, you still gotta get out."
"No worries, Mr. Dawes. I'll head on to Doloresville. Heard there's a good café up there."
"Good enough. More than a diner, less than a restaurant." He hesitated. "Didn't see your wheels."
John Peters hefted his knapsack. "Took the train down here so I could walk free. I'm hoofin' it. I'll go right over that low hill there. Got a topo map shows a few trails. That's the way I like it. Map says it's some kinda state park."
Dawes hesitated again. Then he said: "It's a long walk. If you don't mind sitting in a beat-up old pickup truck, I'll drive you over. It's about half an hour by road."
"I like walking," Peters said. "Should take me only two, three hours. It's a pretty direct route, if I can trust the map."
"Suit yourself, buddy. But I'm headed that way anyhow."
"Maybe I'll see you there," John Peters said.
"Maybe you will," Dawes said.
Peters touched his hat brim and turned to walk off up the hill. It took him about ten minutes to reach the crest of the first hill. The hill was covered with dry grass and spotted with scrub oaks that were barely more than head-high at their biggest. As he dropped over the ridgeline, he took a quick look back. Dawes was still there, looking up at the hill. He looked small and pale standing at the edge of the wasteland.
The state park was mostly undeveloped, except for a few trails and some wooden mileposts with the distances indicated in thick white paint. He followed his trail around humped summits, seeing no one for a long time. Once in a while a dry whisper of sound indicated a small animal moving away from his footsteps in the miniature world hidden beneath the grasses. Only the crows that watched him from the branches of the scrub oaks let themselves be seen, then flew away, croaking rhythmically, when he drew near. Their night-black pulses suddenly defining the blue sky. As he worked his way down from the heights, though, he began to come across other people, who nodded their heads or made polite greeting sounds that he returned. He could see the town now in the near distance: an agglomeration of rooftops, tree crowns, and the metal glints of cars, along with wooden power poles and a thick band of trees that must have marked the creek shown on the topo map. Now the plants by the trail were accompanied by fragile metal posts bearing cards under rectangles of clear plastic, giving the names and habits of each plant in a script too faded to read easily in the glare of sunlight. The trail was wider and smoother now, with rustic-looking benches, all identical as far as Peters could tell, located at convenient spots. These benches were often occupied by silent couples of various ages, all staring at the low, rounded hills beyond the town. Once in a while a single person or a couple hiked past him going the other way, often with a dog straining at the leash. Peters noted that they were usually Labradors, water dogs from winter countries looking lost in the dry hills and the heat. Finally he came to an area of irrigated trees shading picnic tables and a tiny amphitheatre, as well as a cinderblock restroom. He availed himself of the restroom, which he was grateful to find clean. Then he walked to the road and waited for traffic to pass before crossing to the café he had heard about. He was hungry now and ready for hot food. The undemanding companionship of waitstaff and anonymous lunchers would be welcome enough after a few days of quiet walking.
Most of the buildings he could see in the little town were either dark wood made to look rustic, or impossibly bland cinderblock. The café was one of the rustic wooden ones, with a shake roof and broad picture windows. A shallow covered porch ran across the front, Wild West style; there were two rocking chairs on it that no one was sitting in. Hokey, but Peters was there for the food. The bulletin board by the door was a nice touch, though; there were notices on it that seemed to be from locals. Offers of handyman work, brush clearance, babysitting, outgrown toys. The inevitable trucks for sale. Private room with bath. He didn't need any of it, but it made him smile. He went into the café, which was airy and quiet despite the murmur of voices and the usual kitchen sounds. Dark wood walls with reproductions of landscape paintings here and there, simple old-fashioned lamps hanging from the ceiling. The greeter, a slim brown-haired young woman, walked up to him with a smile and said, "You must be Mr. Peters. Please come this way."
"You know me?"
"Your friend is waiting for you at his usual table. He described you pretty well."
"My friend? Ah, Mr. Dawes."
"Yes, poor Jerry. Follow me, please."
It was indeed poor Jerry Dawes that smiled at him from a booth by the window. Peters shucked off his knapsack and set it on the vinyl bench, then slid himself in after it. "You surprised me there, Mr. Dawes."
"Hope you don't mind. I felt kinda bad after leaning on you back at my property, so I was hoping to talk you into letting me buy you lunch."
"I'm not broke, you know. I really do have a fourplex."
"Aw, hell, that's not the point. I'm just making amends for having been a low-grade asshole back there. You'll be doing me a favor if you let me treat."
Peters thought about it. It was true that he wasn't broke, but he wasn't flush either. "Well, all right," he said. "But I'm not much of a conversationalist. Always been sort of a loner."
Dawes smiled. "Half the folks in this town are loners. The kind who'd be desert rats if this was the real desert. What'll it be?" Peters had been studying the menu.
"I read online back home that they have a magic way with corn mush."
"Corn mush?" Dawes looked puzzled.
"Yeah. So magic that they call it 'po-lenta'."
Peters grinned, and Dawes chuckled after a moment. "Yeah, that's pretty good here. With eggs, or with sausage?"
"Eggs, I guess. Sourdough toast on the side. And hot chocolate instead of coffee."
"Got a sweet tooth?"
"Coffee gives me the shakes. And decaf never tastes right to me."
"I'm with ya there, buddy." Dawes signaled for the waitress and gave her both their orders.
"What I wanted to say is, that I ought not to have assumed you were a bum. I mean, your camp was neat and your gear was clean, but you just didn't have much stuff, you know…."
Peters nodded. "I guess," he said, "I was a minimalist before it became something to brag on. You know: 'The more things you own, the more things own you.'"
"But you own a fourplex."
"It fell into my lap. And I never wanted to carry it to extremes, the minimalist thing. I've seen folks grow old with nothing, and it's not pretty. But I've seen folks give all their love to their junk, and die alone. That's not too pretty either."
Dawes nodded in agreement. "I've seen it too. But I guess I let myself get tempted by the ways of the world, you know. I had enough to hold me through most trouble life can throw at you, at least in this country, at least if you're white like you and me. But I wanted more, so I sold most of what I had to buy that property, and now I live damn near as poor as a desert rat myself, but not quite."
"Like that story of the dog that sees his reflection in the pond, and drops the bone he's carrying to grab the one the 'other' dog has?"
Dawes laughed. "Yeah, just like that. 'Cept I guess as things ease up I'll be able to develop it after all. But I'll have to borrow money this time. Means I won't be my own man for a few years. I'll be chasing bums off the property for the bank's well-being instead of my own."
"Nobody's ever their own man, anyway," Peters said. "Not even me. I gotta pay taxes, gotta fix toilets and wiring, that sort of thing, if I want to keep my easy life. Even when I'm out on the road, I'm not my own man. Folks think I'm so independent, hoofin' it around the wild country, but someone else made my clothes, my shoes, my trail mix, even a couple of my teeth. The stuff all those rugged individualists never think about. And here's our breakfast, so let's eat. I haven't talked this much all at once since I was in school."
The waitress laid their plates down with a smile and a soft word to Dawes. They ate quietly, interrupted twice by men who stopped by the table to greet Dawes, who then introduced them to Peters. Peters made the usual prescribed noises and even smiled. No point in embarrassing his host. When they finished eating and sat down to refills of coffee and chocolate, Peters said, "You're a popular guy around here. I'm guessing you're a goodhearted kind of fellow, maybe more than you want to be?"
Dawes laughed softly. "Less than I want to be, is more like it. I really am the guy who chased you off my property, and didn't feel bad about it till later. But I'm the local sad story, the damn fool who tried to play with the big boys from the city, and didn't have what it takes. I guess I'm the story they tell their kids to keep them from getting too big for their britches."
"There's something to be said for setting your sights low, Jerry." Peters didn't feel quite right using Dawes's first name yet, but he had guessed it would make the other man happy.
"Is that what you've done, John?"
"I guess it is."
"And does it really work? I guess what I want it know is, are you happy?"
"I think so. Whatever that means. At least, happy enough not to hang myself."
Dawes stared into his coffee cup for a while. "And that's really happy enough?"
"I knew a man who did it. Hanged himself. And he had everything. I realized I'd thought he was happy, and I had no idea. So I decided to step back and figure things out. I’m not sure I did, but I'm still here, and he's not."
"So what's your secret?"
Peters shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe it's just not jumping to conclusions. About anything. Just see it for what it is, not for what other people tell you it ought to be, and figure out whether it upsets you or, or… brings you closer to life. The way the hills do for me. For you, might be something else."
"Man, I hope I can learn to see life that way."
"If you can say that, Jerry, maybe you already do."
The waitress came by with the coffee carafe, but Dawes waved her off. "So where you headed next, John?"
"You know St. Paul Road? Runs up into the hills from around here somewhere and dead-ends at the reservoir?"
Dawes nodded. "Sure. Used to drive up there with my girl to make out when I was a pimply kid. Guess the pimply kids these days still do."
"Map says a trail heads north from there. Want to see how far it goes. Might even walk home. It's not that far. Forty miles or so. There's a little town on the way."
"Delmore, I've driven through it. You ever get back here," Dawes said, "look me up." He handed Peters a business card that still said Developer as his job title, in delicate italics.
"Probably will, Jerry. I like this country. And I get around."
He stood up and hefted his knapsack. Dawes stood up with him, and the two men shook hands. John Peters headed out the door. Dawes watched him but didn't follow. Peters was grateful for that. As a rule he didn't talk to himself, but as he walked out of the little town, he said out loud. "Maybe there's hope for him after all." Then he found the road he was looking for and headed up hill to where it ended. He had talked too much. He could blame Jerry Dawes for that, or he could thank him. It didn't matter much now. It was time for silence.
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and blithering on about it with keyboard or his own big mouth.
His website: http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/