Hobo Camp

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A Short Story by Art Davis

John David Hewitt was a few minutes from reaching his destination. John’s favorite thing to do almost always involved a solo car trip. He had been meaning to take this trip every year for about forty years. At sixty-four John hadn’t visited his childhood neighborhood since his twenties and was excited about seeing the house he grew up in on Montclair Drive. This excitement appeared out of place and somehow exaggerated. He entered the home stretch as he turned left from Meadowbrook on to Montclair and zigzagged onto the second block. John spent all his life, until he went to college, in the second house from the end of the block on the right. His best friend, Stuart Rodan who was three years older lived in the last house on the left. Stuart was in junior high school when John, called David back then, was still in Elementary School.

As John was preparing to go to junior high school there were so many Davids. Dozens of them in his class. His mom decided that he should change his name. As a result, when nervously walking into junior high in 1965 John became David. He was okay with that. Moms and dads usually knew the best thing to do. They knew things. It did take some getting used to.

John slowed down as he approached the end of the block. The houses all looked familiar but he became confused as he approached his address. Pulling over to the curb in front of his address John got out of the car and walked into the front yard. All the trees were the same. The house to the left was the same, a good bit older and run down, but the same house. The house on the right sported a new front porch but looked to be the same house. He turned and squinted at Stuart’s house across the street: a different color but appeared the same as well. He turned back. In front of him, at his address, stood a completely different house. He felt as if he had been sucker punched in the gut, could hardly breathe. The only thing he could think of was his house had burned and a new one had been built in its place. Needing to sit down he felt disoriented, dizzy, and strange. There in the front yard of his childhood home (that wasn’t) he sat and stared at the thick grass. The grass looked fascinating with the blades angling ever-which-way with no real pattern. He felt something shift.

#

Looking up he spotted the driveway and there David saw the 1963 Plymouth Barracuda. The men from the dealership had just brought it early that morning. His mom’s new car. His mom, happier than he had ever seen her, opened the door, stuck her head inside, straightened up smiling, and ran to hug his dad. His mom and dad kissed right on the mouth right in the middle of the driveway for a very uncomfortable length of time. The aqua and white car radiated coolness. At nine years old a car like that was what teenagers drove. But his mom just got one. It had bright shiny chrome bumpers and a slanted back that was made of a single piece of glass. He loved that car.

It was summer and he was so glad to be out of school: the whole summer to just do whatever he wanted. David decided to go to The Dump.

It wasn’t really a Dump. It wasn’t a garbage dump. It was a large field with part of it covered with huge fifteen-foot tall piles of dirt, gravel, rocks, and demolition debris. Stuart thought it was used as a place to stage construction materials for building and tearing down houses. Stuart, being three years older knew a lot of things that were still a mystery to David.

The Dump wasn’t far, just a few minutes’ walk. He loved to just set out on his own, walking and riding his bike everywhere. He thought maybe that was just the way he was. His dad had said that was just the way he was wired. Not knowing what that meant, David laughed with his father whenever he said it because it made them both feel good. Turning on Barnet, it felt good to be in the sun in his new black Converse All Star High Tops, jeans, and his favorite blue tee-shirt. He set off on the day’s adventure, on a familiar trip to The Dump.

As he walked, he thought about Stuart and what he must be doing at Boy Scout camp. David looked up to Stuart: sort of best friend and surrogate older brother rolled into one. David’s mom and dad both said that Stuart was wild, and it was because of his red hair. That never made any sense to David. Well, he was wild. They sure did things together that he would never have done by himself: sneaking out at night and walking around shooting out streetlights with Stuart’s pellet gun for example. They would end up sitting on top of David’s detached garage looking at the stars. One time they made a dummy by stuffing some of Stuart’s clothes and rags inside a pair of jeans and a shirt. With the head made from a football and covered in a hooded sweatshirt, they hung the dummy by the neck from a big tree in Stuart’s front yard. In the dark, it looked real from the street. Cars slowed down as David and Stuart watched from the bushes. That was some real fun until Stuart’s dad came home late from work, slammed on the brakes, rushed from the car, and hugged the dummy crying and screaming, “Stuart. No. Christ. Stuart.”

They were so screwed. So yeah, Stuart was wild, but not because of his red hair.

Turning off the paved road and onto the unmarked dirt road that led into The Dump, David noticed yellow flowers as they swayed in the breeze. He stopped, held his breath, squinted, then exhaled and smiled as the name coreopsis popped into his head. His mother had set a goal for David to learn the names of twenty wildflowers before the summer was over.  Coreopsis sounded exotic to him. On the left side of the road were the tall piles of dirt, rocks, and debris. On the right was very tall grass that he couldn’t see over. This led to a small clearing where the piles outlined a circle. In the middle was the Hobo Camp that Stuart and David had made. It consisted of two tree stumps, the perfect height for sitting, stationed in front of a fire pit made by a circle of rocks from one of the rock piles. Charred remains of a previous fire darkened the center of the circle. In the middle sat two cinderblocks and a grate from a Weber grill. They found all of this from the big debris pile. To one side a shelf built of more cinderblocks and an old door that held plastic containers full of water bottles, half a twelve pack of Dr. Pepper, Jiffy peanut butter, and the last of a loaf of Mrs. Baird’s Bread, newspapers, and a box of kitchen matches completed the camp. Each of the containers had what was inside written on the side in dark block letters. Stuart learned that from Boy Scout campouts. At nine years old this represented quite the setup, an achievement to be noted.

Sitting down David started to make a peanut butter sandwich but thought better of it.

“A fire is what is needed,” he said out loud. Catching himself he laughed. The debris pile was a treasure trove of material to make just about anything that needed to be made. He gathered six good size pieces of wood from the pile, removed the grate, placed two pieces of newspaper at the bottom, and a pile of small sticks on top. He carefully stacked the pieces of wood leaning them each on the other, so they formed a teepee shape. This is how Stuart did it and he was older and knew things.

David cocked his head. He heard a car coming down the path and quickly ran hiding behind the debris pile. His heart was pounding in his ears. On the path, two men in a rusty, old, white pickup truck with one blue fender drove down the path. The pickup came to a stop, brakes complaining, squealing.

The two men got out and walked over to the Hobo Camp. The bigger man with a beard said, “You think it’s just kids?”

“Looks like it to me,” said the smaller man. He walked over to the shelf and said, “Pretty nice setup.”

That made David proud for some reason. It wasn’t really any of his doing. Stuart was three years older and knew things: knew how to make a campfire. David had watched him make a lot of fires. Stuart was always getting merit badges for stuff like knowing how to tie a hundred different knots. David kind of wanted to be a Boy Scout but his mom had said it was either that or trumpet lessons.

David chose trumpet lessons because he liked to play the trumpet and learning to tie a hundred different knots seemed hard and not that interesting. His dad played the trumpet. His uncle played too. One of the things he loved the most was that his dad dressed up in a tuxedo, packed suitcases and music stands in the Buick Special, and would go to play a dance job. Dance jobs were what his dad’s band specialized in. A jazz big-band that played music for people to dance to. His father got home late at night and his mom baked a small yellow sheet-cake with sugar and cinnamon on top. They ate the warm cake and talked quietly in the kitchen. He would fall back asleep listening to the soft mummer of their voices catching a word here, a word there, but for the most part, just enjoying the familiar sound. It sounded safe.

#

The two men walked over to the debris pile and started digging around. Peeking over the top of the debris pile, David quietly moved so he stayed out of their sight. They found two large air conditioning units and using some big bolt cutters removed the copper from the units. They chunked the copper into the back of the pickup, hopped in the truck, and backed out down the path.

David waited a few minutes until he was certain that they were gone for good and climbed down the debris pile. On the makeshift shelf, he picked up the kitchen matches. Returning to the fire circle, he lit the paper that was under the sticks and teepee shaped stack of wood. The paper caught easily and within about a minute there was a nice fire going. David was learning things. He sat down on the tree stump and looked at the fire. He loved the way the flames danced around with no real pattern. He felt something shift.

#

“Hey man you’re zoning out,” said Stuart.

“What?” said David laughing at himself. “Fires always make me remember of all kinds of weird stuff.”

Stuart stood and said, “I think we should venture down to the creek bed and follow it out into the woods. Maybe go all the way to Brentwood Stair and get something to satisfy our hunger.”

David laughed. Stuart was always talking like that: with grandeur like a knight, or at least someone very important.

“The question is. Is it a Snickers day or a Payday day?” asked David.

“Dumb ass,” Stuart said.

Leaving the Hobo Camp, they walked through the tall grass and down to the creek bed. The bed remained completely dry most of the time but was deep. They had discovered a few places to easily climb down the rocks to the gravel and boulder covered bed. It always reminded David of prehistoric times. Sometimes water trickled down the middle and you could catch crawdads with a with a paperclip and a piece of string. They were too small to eat. But that didn’t matter. It was still fun and a little creepy.

“Let’s head straight to the castle,” said Stuart.

The castle consisted of a formation of boulders completing a circle. It was about twenty-five feet tall and you could climb down in the middle and hang out. It was great, like being in a castle made of stone.

They followed the creek bed down past the big curve. The creek bed continued to get deeper and deeper. By the time they got to the castle, it was about thirty feet deep. They climbed up the side of the creek bed, over to the walls of the castle, then down into the center. It smelled damp, and of limestone, and was cooler at the bottom. Only a small patch of sky straight up could be seen. Summer clouds drifted by as they laid on their backs in the middle of the castle and watched.

Stuart pulled out his Zippo lighter. It had been his father’s and was old, from World War II. The sliver outside, worn in spots to copper green reflected the sunlight. It had initials engraved on the side. M. R. Mathew Rodan, Stuart’s dad. The lighter made David nervous. Stuart was wild after all. He did all kinds of crazy things that David had to be talked into.

David’s nagging fears were confirmed as Stuart stood and said, “I got a nifty idea.” He flicked the lighter with a magic trick kind of move. He held it between his thumb and first and second fingers. Snapped it. Then there it was, open and lit in one smooth, practiced, graceful move. Stuart did know things.

Snapping the lighter shut with a flick of the wrist he began to climb, continued up the walls of the castle, and finally stood on top raising his hands into the air like Moses. There about eight feet above the wall was the top edge of the creek bed cliff. Golden straw-colored grass hung down over the edge, waving in the gentle breeze. As Stuart looked down at David and smiled, David felt a chill go down his spine. Stuart looked like some kind of medieval-devil-Moses, smiling. It was a humorless smile and his red hair glistened yellow and orange in the mid-summer sun: looking like fire as it blew in the breeze. He held the Zippo lighter in the palm of his hand offering it up to the sky.

“Hey, hey, hey, no, no. That is a very bad idea,” David said sitting up.

“I think it is a very good idea, my friend,” said Stuart.

“No, it is not. It is summer, Stuart. What if we can’t put it out? What if it just goes ‘whoof’ and is out of control?”

Stuart just laughed. He did look like a medieval-devil-Moses. “We’ll just light a little bit of the grass and see what happens. Hand me your water bottle,”

David threw his water bottle. Missed. And threw again. Success. “I still think this is a seriously bad idea, Stuart. We could get in a lot of trouble.”

Stuart said, “Okay here we go for a little test, a POC, a proof of concept.” He held up the lighter and did his little magic trick. The trick was no longer magic. It was bad. David felt sick to his stomach. Stuart lit a piece of the overhanging grass and it caught. David thought he was going to throw up.

David yelled, “Put it out. It’s growing.”

Stuart poured the water on the burning grass. It sizzled and smoke rose from the blackened grass. The acrid smell of ashes fell into the castle and filled David’s nose and made his eyes water.

“See nothing to worry about. Totally under control. I got this.” Holding up the water bottle Stuart said, “A Boy Scout is always prepared.”

David stared at him wild-eyed wondering if that was it. But he knew better. Stuart always pushed to the next step, the next level, the too-far-over-the-line level. All David could do was hope. Saying anything would just seal the deal to move forward.

Stuart grinned. Then formed a white tooth filled smile and said, “Now with the rousing success of our little proof of concept, it is time for the main event.”

David’s heart sank into his stomach. “Stuart, please. This is crazy. Even for you, this is crazy. Let’s just go down to the store. Satisfy our hunger and all that shit. My treat. I’ll pay for everything.”

Stuart said, “Well here we go.” He flicked his wrist and lit a big clump of grass hanging over the side. It caught and the flames were yellow, red, and orange. Stuart’s hair was yellow, red, and orange. He was smiling and dancing on the top of the castle wall. He danced a little jig, turning in a circle. As if summoned by medieval-devil-Moses-Stuart’s incantation, a gust of wind ripped through the creek bed canyon and up the castle wall and hit the flames in the grass. In less than a second, the fire exploded, expanding and crawling sideways along the lip of the creek bed. The fire became alive. In the blink of an eye, it grew ten feet wide as it climbed out over the lip and sped into the field up top.

There was no way to get to it because there was no way to get out of the creek bed. The walls were way too tall and steep.

David yelled, “Shit Stuart. Asshole. Shit.”

Stuart lost his cavalier confidence and said, “Help me down. We’ve got to run.”

David helped Stuart down off the castle wall and they ran as fast as they could back the way they had come. After a bit, they stopped. Out of breath, they looked back, they could see smoke billowing up into the azure summer sky. In the distance, they heard sirens. The acrid smell of smoke made them cough and burned their eyes. Fire trucks and probably police as well were responding. Now they were both scared. They were screwed. David fought back tears as they hid down in the creek bed behind some boulders. They could hear the firemen working on the flames. Yelling commands. Then more sirens coming their way. Suddenly voices directly above them. Firemen. They couldn’t make out what they were saying but they were close. Stuart and David held their breath. David closed his eyes. After what seemed like hours the men walked away. David and Stuart waited. No more voices. Just the wind and a dark crackling sound in the distance.

They considered trying to get out of the creek bed and run but thought it would be safer to stay where they were hidden in the rocks listening until things calmed down.

“So, what the hell are we going to do?” David said.

“We’re going to just stay put and then walk out. We’re just two boys walking down the road on a sunny summer’s day,” said Stuart as calmly as you please.

“How can you say that? We just caught the whole field on fire. What if a house was burned? What if someone was hurt? What if someone …” David bent over and threw up. “Shit Stuart.” He spat on the ground. “Fuck.”

Nothing was spoken for a long time. The sirens and engine noises were gone. There was just a little smoke dissipating with the pleasant mid-summer breeze.

#

Two hours later they agreed it was safe to climb out of the creek bed. They headed carefully back to the Hobo Camp.

Back at the camp Stuart opened a Dr. Pepper and sat on one of the stumps looking into the last of the campfire. David did the same. The boys sat there in total silence for quite a while.

Staring into the fire for a very long time and drinking his warm Dr. Pepper, David hoped that no one was hurt and that they wouldn’t end up in jail. David thought, “Knows things alright. Knows how to set the whole damn field on fire and nearly got us arrested.” He poked a stick in the fire and continued his thought, “Maybe he is wild because of his red hair.”

A long deep breath in then a slow exhale eased the tension from his shoulders. David loved the way the flames danced around with no real pattern. He felt something shift.

#

Campfires have always been relaxing and calming to David. Looking up from the fire he decided it was probably time to go home. His parents didn’t like for him to stay gone too long when he was by himself. With a small shovel, he covered the fire with dirt making sure that the fire was completely out. This was important. With this completed and double-checked, he headed down the path towards Barnet street and set out for home.

#

Rounding the corner to Montclair there it was, the aqua and white 1963 Plymouth Barracuda. David started to feel the effects of his walk down to The Dump. He sat down in the front yard and looked at the car. “Man, that is a cool car,” he thought. Feeling extremely tired now he looked down at the thick grass. He liked the way the grass looked with the blades going every-which-way with no real pattern. He felt something shift.

#

John looked up from the grass, stood, took one last look at his home that wasn’t, and walked to the curb, got in his car, and drove. He turned left on Barnet and passed Stuart’s garage and backyard. Turning left on Lynnhaven then right on Meadowbrook he passed, on his left, the red brick elementary school with the white cornerstones and keystones, then later the mid-century modern junior high school on the right. He turned on Beech Street. His car seemed to float down the tunnel of beech trees flanking the long straight street. Finally, the trees gave way to open sides as it curved onto the freeway entrance ramp. As his car gained speed on the ramp he said, “But you can’t have my memories.”

The freeway stretched out in front of him. The blacktop seemed to disappear underneath the car. The dotted white lines were eaten by momentum: at first in front, then gone winking out of existence. Memories are like that. They need to be protected from time. Houses are mortal and will crumble and give way to other things: unwanted things. Memories are fragile. Memories are important: they are slippery. John felt that his memories, his stories, needed him as much as he needed them. If stories are told and written down, they become eternal. Watching the road disappear ahead he finally recognized that now, he knew things.