Peter was a wealthy man. He had nothing but love.
He lived in a two-story, tacked together shack that sat precariously on a gently sloped clearing, in the middle of wilderness forest, deep in the shadowy foothills of a great mountain. During the fall and winter, a trickling stream meandered just below his rustic home; once spring arrived, it brought with it the melted snow from high in the nearby mountains, and the trickling stream swelled to a gushing, white-water river. Some years, the water would rise to such great heights that Peter would have to paddle his old and battered wooden canoe 200-feet from his tumble-down home to the mailbox.
I arrived for my first hospice visit, after losing my way for a couple of hours on winding, narrow, two-lane dirt roads. My GPS had been useless; no satellite or cell service here. Neighbors were miles apart, hidden away in the densely packed forest. As I pulled into an open area, set back from the dusty road, I saw what could not possibly be a house. I stared at the gutted out frame of a deteriorating barn shed, only the back and side walls still standing, with pieces of an old roof jutting out here and there. The front had been faced with unpainted, roughly weathered and warped plywood sheets. Perched atop the old barn shed was a slightly crooked, plywood rectangle structure, with gaping squares sawed out for windows. Old, flower-patterned sheets hung inside the window openings, and wafted back and forth in the warm summer breeze.
I was met by a woman, who smiled and waved me forward. She stood at the bottom of a wooden ramp, which was randomly reinforced every several inches with 1″ x 2″ cross boards for footing. The ramp leaned against the side of Peter’s home, and led upwards to the plywood box above. This cannot be where he lives, I muttered under my breath.
“Hey, you have gotten to Peter’s home!” the woman sang out to me. Had I spoken aloud? I blushed, then worked up something that I hoped resembled an enthusiastic smile. Inside, I was feeling something close to dread. Surely, this was the wrong “Peter”.
“Yes! Good!” I called back to her, as I reached into the car trunk for my nursing bag. “Be right there!” I hugged Peter’s chart close to my left side with one arm, and hauled the heavy bag along with my right, as I trudged across the grass-and-weed meadow that stretched between the dirt drive and the woman.
She laughed as I drew near, and she reached for my bag. “I’ll take that for you.” She turned her head upwards to the second level of the structure. “Peter’s up there. He’s waiting for you.” Silently, I groaned. It was the right “Peter”.
“Sorry I’m late. I got–”
“You got lost. They always do,” she interrupted. Still laughing, she took her first few steps up the wobbly wooden ramp, half-turned and again waved me up. I watched as she climbed to the top. She seemed completely unconcerned about whether or not the ramp would hold her up.
“C’mon up!” She was still laughing. “It’ll hold you just fine!!” She gave a knowing look at me and at the ramp, motioning with her arm for me to follow.
My first few steps were tentative, but as I climbed, I comforted myself by looking at the grass and weeds below me, and thinking it really wasn’t that far to the ground, even if the ramp did topple over. I sighed a great sigh, when at last I reached the top. As I stepped into the room, I found myself surrounded by a dozen people, some chatting quietly with a man I took to be Peter, whose slight and bony form lay on an unsheeted mattress in the corner of the room, and some preparing food on a wooden board, which ran the length of the far wall. I smelled the smoke of a campfire, as it drifted hazily through a window opening. I was suddenly reminded of barbecue. My stomach rumbled, and my mouth watered.
“Are you hungry?” Peter asked from his bed.
“Uh–” I looked at the people standing near the counter, then at Peter. “No, uh, I just ate.” I was actually famished, but wasn’t sure of what lunch would be, so thought it safer to politely decline. There didn’t appear to be a sink or a stove. But the small area seemed clean enough, though dwarfed now by the room-full of people.
Someone grabbed an old wooden apple crate and set it on its side, for me to use as a stool next to Peter’s mattress. I sat and introduced myself to Peter, who in turn, rattled off the names of the people around the room, along with a quip about how he had met each one.
” . . . and here’s Clare.” He gently squeezed the hand of the woman who had given me enough moral support to get me up the ramp. She smiled at me again, as she stood at Peter’s side and looped her fingers through his shoulder length black hair. “Clare is the woman I nearly shot, back in the day, thinking she was a deer . . . ” They laughed together at the memory.
“But we’ve since improved our — ” Peter and Clare smiled at each other, two people who shared a deeper secret.
” – - we’ve since improved our relationship.” They both laughed quietly. Clare squatted next to Peter and brushed a quick kiss against his lips.
And so Peter continued, around the room, til by the end I couldn’t remember anyone’s name except for Clare’s, but I had a good grasp of a life that was full to the brim with love and friendship. I sat speechless for a few moments, wondering where these people all came from. I’d hadn’t seen any nearby houses on the drive into this forsaken wilderness.
As though reading my thoughts, Peter explained with a big grin, “Some of them are just old strays, others are transplants from a previous lifetime, and they just . . .” He looked around the room at several giggling people. “. . . and they just never left. Couldn’t get rid of them,” he teased.
“And you couldn’t get rid of us, even if you really wanted to!” A few high-fives went around the room.
“It’s all the glamour,” someone added, teasing Peter back.
“Where do you all live?” I asked. My curiosity over-ruled politeness.
Another round of laughter. “Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s quite a bit of open space around here!” a man said, as he peered out an undraped back window opening that faced in the direction of the stream below. He was dressed in a pair of overalls that had one broken buckle, so the left strap hung loosely down around his elbow. “To be honest, we can always invade Howard’s or Jules’ cabins–if the winter comes in too hard.”
“But most of the time, we bundle in down below.” He tapped his foot lightly as he glanced at the floor, a crude row of well-worn two-by-fours lined up evenly against each other. “It’s warm enough, with a fire going out front,” he said. “Nice thing about plywood walls, they’re easy to remove to let the heat in–or out.” He imitated someone reaching out and pulling down a panel of wall, then tacking it back. Everyone in the room shared in another round of laughter.
” . . . and the blankets and the sleeping bags and the hot coffee,” somebody added. Murmurs of agreement floated around the room.
“Don’t forget–” Peter chided, with a slightly mocking frown. “Each other keeps you warm!” He pointed a stern finger at each of them.
Laughter, again. “Oh, right! Can’t forget each other!” A man tickled the ribs of the woman standing beside him, and Peter wiggled his eyebrows up and down at Clare, who was now sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him.
Over the next two hours, I did my nursing evaluation, while others resumed a casual presence in the room, all occupied with a variety of tasks, and quietly visiting with one another. Halfway through, somebody passed me a plate piled high with a generous portion of grilled potato wedges and what someone told me was rabbit. My stomach rumbled hungrily, again, and I eagerly pushed aside all pretense of not being hungry and joined in the feast. I ate until there was nothing left. As I ate, Peter unraveled his long journey to “now”.
Finally satisfied that my stomach was full, I lowered my voice and cautiously ventured into a few, very personal questions. I glanced uncertainly around the room at the others, then back at Peter.
“Don’t worry about them. They’re okay.” He nodded at his friends, who continued to putter around the room as though nothing unusual was going on. “Nothing about me they don’t already know,” he said with a chuckle. “–and, nothing unusual goin’ on here, not that doesn’t happen in all of nature.” His words startled me in their sudden, almost-casual, frankness. He met my startled gaze directly.
But something unusual was going on, I thought. Peter was dying. Only forty-three and dying of a brain cancer. How could he say that nothing unusual was going on here?
“You live with nature, you kill for your food, you plant your food, eat what you bring in, carry your own water, cut your own wood. You shit and piss in the woods, unless it’s the middle of frickin’ winter–then you use a bucket,” he explained, bluntly. “You think you know, but you don’t.” He pointed a single finger at me, and the few lines on his face softened a little. “But you’re removed, you’re taken away from nature. You have forgotten, because you don’t live in it anymore, and you’ve forgotten about this cycle of life and death.” He leaned back against an old, yellowed pillow, silent. I wanted to say something to break the oppressive quiet, but I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just sat there, feeling awkward. I shifted on the crate, and it wobbled beneath me, threatening to topple over. My own world view was tilting inside, as I realized that Peter had seen me coming long before I had. His voice turned smooth, and he said, “I know you see it, but you don’t live it anymore out there, because you don’t have to ’til it gets you. And then you’re alone.” He looked at Clare, then back at me. “But living out here? We see it every day. We learn it’s part of living, the dying is.” He was very still for a while, and no one spoke.
“Yup!” he summed up, a knowing grin wiping away the somber face of a sage. He sat more upright, an elbow leaned against the wall for support. “A well-educated, big-airplane-company-engineer-turned-mountain man — at last.” He pointed a finger at his chest, and he smiled and nodded his head firmly, as he let out a loud, satisfied sigh. “It took awhile, but I found my way home.” He glanced around the room at his friends. “This isn’t where I was born, but this is where I will die — and I won’t see another winter with my friends, but they’ll be here when I go.” He put a period at the end of the sentence. He appeared to be completely at peace with his words. “At the big airplane company, I must’ve worked with a hundred different people. But I only really knew one or two. Out here? I know everybody, plus a critter or two. And where I worked, it was everybody for himself. Out here if a friend falls on hard times, everybody comes from everywhere to help out. It all goes round and round.”
I realized that he hadn’t eaten, and I apologized for so impolitely wolfing down my food, while he lay there calmly telling me his life story.
He shook his head. “No, no. I’m not hungry,” he assured me. “Haven’t been hungry in a couple of weeks.” He pulled at the elastic waist band of his pajama bottoms, which sagged loosely around his hips. “Finally lost that last, nagging, twenty pounds!” He laughed, and poked gentle fun at himself. “Not that I’d recommend this particular diet.” He tapped the side of his head with a forefinger. “No, no. Brain tumor diet is definitely not the way to go!” He laughed again, this time more quietly. “But I was always an ‘all-this’ or ‘all-that’ sort of person. Couldn’t ever seem to do anything just sort of, couldn’t be just kind of anything. Had to be all-or-nothing!” He glanced around the room at his friends. “But I coulda done worse, huh?” He looked back at me.
“Yeh, you could have,” I answered. “Looks to me like you’ve done just fine.” Silently, I tried to remember the last time I’d had enough room in my schedule to have even six friends to my home for a gathering, let alone more than a dozen.
“Oh! And you haven’t met all of us, yet!” someone called to me from a corner of the room.
“There’s more?” I asked, eyes widened.
Laughter around the room, again. “Couldn’t even squeeze us all in here–not all at once!”
“Hell, no!” someone else said. “Wouldn’t hold us up!” He stomped his foot on the floor.
A ragged blanket and an old sleeping bag that was losing its stuffing curled around Peter’s pencil-thin legs. Two rows of pills stood like soldiers marching in formation in a little wooden box, which someone had undoubtedly made just for that purpose, then tacked up on the wall next to Peter’s mattress. He opened two bottles and threw back a few pills with a swallow of water from a chipped coffee mug that said, “Holy Cow! Help Me!” on the side, and showed a mouse clinging desperately to the side of a cliff, while a cow stood at the cliff edge, peering down at the mouse with wide, soulful eyes. Peter watched as I studied the cartoon on the mug.
“That mouse used to be me,” he said. I noticed Clare had drifted off to sleep where she sat on the floor, legs still crossed, her chin rested softly against her chest. Her breathing seemed easy, undisturbed.
“And it isn’t now?” I asked.
“Nope.” Peter lifted his eyebrows, the right arching higher than the left. “Livin’ out here cured me of that. I was workin’ fourteen, sixteen hours a day, six days a week, never had time for anything but work, work, work. Can’t remember the last meal I ate at home.” He chuckled softly and shook his head. “In fact–I dunno why I even bothered to keep a house–I was never there! Overtime was good, ‘cuz we were union engineers, but–” He shook his head slowly back and forth. “I mean, it helped me get this here–” He waved at the floor and the ceiling. “But what did all that cost me, do you know what I’m saying?”
I heard the faint hum of an engine in the distance, then the growling churn of gravel-against-gravel.
“They’re here!” someone yelled and raced from the room. I heard the soft sound of feet scampering down the wooden ramp.
“How long did it take you? Come on up, we’ve got food! Are you hungry?! It’s so good to see you guys!” The excited sounds of greetings being shared found their way in through the holes in the second-story plywood walls.
Footsteps up the ramp, and one by one Peter’s parents and a sister were introduced to me as they entered the room. They gave me a tilt of their heads in greeting, then hurried over to Peter, where hugs and kisses were shared amply all around. Someone handed each of the visitors a plate piled high with deliciously steaming food, and magically, three more wooden crates appeared out of nowhere, and all three sat down next to Peter.
“Hey, Mom, Dad, Sammie–” Peter propped himself on his side, an elbow against the mattress. “Good to see you guys again!” He smiled broadly, and a bit of cheek color showed through against his otherwise gaunt, sallow face.
I guessed that Peter’s parents were in their late sixties. His father was dressed in a sports jacket and tie, with pressed dress slacks, and expensive, alligator shoes. His mother was tall, with carefully coiffed hair. She wore a trim, brown jacket over a fitted white blouse, and a long, cotton print skirt that billowed out when she walked; she carried a white leather clutch bag and wore sandle pumps that matched her clutch bag. Silently, I wondered how she had managed the ramp with those heels. Sister Sammie wore designer skinny jeans with pre-made holes torn in the backs of both legs, and a snugly fitted spandex tube top, which outlined her slim thirty-something body. For nearly an hour, they chattered noisily and eagerly, and they interrupted the chatter, frequently, with hugs back and forth. Peter’s mother and father picked at their food, barely touching it. His sister gobbled hers down in less than five minutes. I sat in a corner of the room and finished paperwork, while quietly absorbing the pleasant, harmonic mood, as family members engaged easily with Peter and his oddly matched friends. The contrast between Peter and his parents and friends struck me. Yet, they all seemed to be at ease. Soon, his parents looked toward me, and carried their make-shift chairs to a corner, motioning me toward Peter’s mattress side.
“You’ve got work to do, I’m sure,” his father said, as he motioned at Peter.
“It’s getting late, and I’m sure you have family waiting for you at home,” his mother said graciously.
I hadn’t noticed ’til that moment that the sun was setting in the distance. It was getting late, and I was nervous about finding my way out of the forest. But I had a few more questions.
“Before I go, I just have to ask,” I began.
Peter grinned, “How did I get from big-airplane-company-engineer to here?”
His mother sighed, and shrugged her shoulders, as she looked expectantly at Peter. “He’ll tell you. But I’m still not sure I get it.”
“I’ll give you the short version,” Peter offered. “I’d been working at the big airplane company for about ten years, when one day I started getting stomach pains. I mean, really bad stomach pains.” He grimaced as he patted his stomach. “Went to the doc, who did a bunch of tests and told me I had ulcers. I needed to cut back on the stress in my life–you know, simplify things. ” He held a hand up and ticked off fingers as he spoke. “–cut down on the hours, eat at least two home-cooked meals every day, get more than four hours’ sleep every night, don’t sleep around, drinks don’t count as food. You know the drill.”
“And you’ve never been able to do anything just sort of!” I said.
Peter chuckled. “You were listening, then!”
“So what did you do?”
“Just quit?” I asked, tilting my head in a way that asked for more.
“Just quit. I had a few bucks set aside in my savings account,” he said, as he glanced tentatively at his parents. “I wasn’t totally irresponsible, you know.”
“We never said you were,” his parents said in unison.
“Anyway . . .” Peter began, leaving an intentional pause hanging in the air for a few moments. “Anyway, I bought this place–forty acres of nothing but a barn shed, and a bunch of hooligans came with it.” Everyone in the room clapped and laughed. Someone whistled, and another friend hooted. “And, that’s pretty much it.”
He waited for questions. I didn’t know where to start, and soon Peter filled in the blanks for me. “Howard, over there,” he pointed to a man standing in the corner of the room. Howard had thinning, wavy, white hair pulled back in a pony tail, and a matching beard that just grazed the bib of his overalls. His clothes were well-worn and needed a wash. “Howard–he was a buddy I worked with before he retired to–”
Howard interrupted, “–the good life.” He laughed loudly, exposing a full, toothy smile, as he waved a hand toward the window.
“Howard retired, and moved up here. We always kept in touch, and when my doctor told me I needed to ‘simplify things’, Howard told me about this place. Price was right, if you considered there was no habitable place to live on any of the forty acres! Except this old thing,” his hand knocked on the plywood wall. “And Howard said, ‘I’ll teach you how to live out here’, so I bought the place, and just went on a wing and a prayer that it was the right thing to do. Well, I had hunted and fished as a kid,” Peter glanced at his father, who smiled and pretended to beat his chest. “And, Mom, over there,” he glanced at his mother, who sat quietly listening, a vague smile on her lips. “Mom always had a little, bitty garden.” Peter held up a thumb and a forefinger, showing a half-inch of air in between. “So I had some basics.”
“Very basic,” laughed Howard.
“Anyway, I learned how to pretty-much make it out here on my own, with Howard’s help. Then, I met Clare,” he said as he patted Clare’s head. She had woken up and was watching Peter as he told his tale.
“Not the way to meet,” she muttered, a grin on her face.
“Well, aside from the rough beginning when I thought you were a deer and almost shot you,” he replied, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Aside from that, we’ve been together ever since.” He smiled contentedly. “I had friends–some you’ve met,” he waved his arm in an arch at his friends who speckled the room, some standing, some sitting, some lying on the floor. “Some joined me, and some came in from–” He squinted his eyes. “I don’t know–where did you all come from?” he asked.
Everyone joined in a laugh.
“Some were Howard’s friends first, some already lived out here,” he explained.
“But, where did you all live?” I asked, without addressing anyone in particular. “I mean, where did you come from, before here?”
“Well, that’s a very long story for another day,” someone offered.
“Some of ‘em lived in the forest, with little places like this, of their own. Some moved in from the city, like me. Howard, he’s got a sweet little cabin with a wood-burning stove, even a bunk bed and a real kitchen table–about a mile from here!” Peter looked around the room at his friends. “But all of us wanted a simpler life. We all wanted to find out how to really live, get out of the numbing rat race.” Peter sat quietly for a few moments, as though carefully considering his next words. “And, when you live in nature, like this–have to do everything for yourself–you find out, not only how to live, but who you really are. You learn how to come together when somebody needs help, and–”
Someone standing at the wooden counter interrupted, “–and when the newbie just throws his arms up and wants to drive to the non-existent corner store for a cold one, or to the non-existent McDonald’s for a burger, you get to do what any good neighbor does–hand him his rifle or water bucket and tell him where to go to get it!” Loud laughter around the room. “And, then, how to cook it!” More hoots and claps.
“Okay, so I’m a slow learner, but I’m here, okay?” Peter pretended to be hurt, and swept one hand across his eyes as though wiping away tears. “Here today, gone tomorrow–one more spot on Howard’s or Jules’ floor for somebody else, I guess.”
“Boo-hoo!” someone said.
Clare hugged Peter against him. His mother wiped a tissue at the corners of both eyes and said nothing. The teasing stopped abruptly.
“So, I guess what it really is,” Peter began, looking at me. “Is that I really live life here. And I have amazing friends–some old, some new– and a great family,” his arm waved toward his parents and sister, who sat listening intently. “And other than that, this is all that I am.” He patted his heart. “Other than that, I really have nothing at all.”
“That sounds like everything to me,” I said to Peter. I glanced toward his parents and sister: they didn’t look happy, but they didn’t look over-wrought, either.
I thanked Peter for his time, and let him know when I would return the following week. He shook my hand and thanked me, asking me once before I descended the ramp if I was sure I didn’t need something to take with me to eat on the way home. I declined and thanked him again, then departed. When I reached the bottom of the ramp, I turned to see Howard following, close behind.
Howard walked me to my car. He spoke quietly, “Thanks for coming out all this way.” He opened the driver’s door for me, and I slid into the seat.
“I feel like I should thank all you,” I said.
“Why’s that?” Howard asked. His eyes squinted into slits that sprayed into wrinkles at the outer corners. “All we gave you was a plate of food and a few old stories!”
“Good stories,” I said, and started the car. “The best story ever,” I smiled and took a deep breath, “about the wealthiest man in the world who has absolutely nothing but love.”
Howard nodded and waved as I pulled out of the clearing. I glanced back in my rear-view mirror. I could see the warm glow of the sun setting behind the shack in the West, and through the sagging window sheets shone the silhouettes of the many friends of Peter, living life on the second floor of an old tumble-down place in the woods.
© Janet Mitchell, April 2012
Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.