With one bag of cookies finished we get back on the trail. Ricky takes the point. Sally and I hang back just in case Ricky starts singing again. Ricky stays quiet but the brush grows thicker and the path narrows. The trees start to cover the creek completely and it’s like we are walking through a green-lit tunnel. Sally lags behind me as she checks out every little opening into the brush and grass; once in a while she finds something to bark at, just one bark and then she moves on.
After almost an hour of walking in silence Ricky stops still in the middle of the path. He makes a couple clicks with his tongue and whispers, “Sally,” he pats the side of his legs with his hand. Sally knows what he means, comes to his side and sits beside him.
I keep silent and walk up to him looking to see why he has stopped.
Ricky points to a spot on the upper side of the path. At first all I see is a pile of old clothes covered with a short piece of old stained carpet and then I see the feet. Sticking out past the edge of the carpet are two, bare, dirty, gray feet and two skinny gray calves.
“Is he dead?” I whisper to Ricky but in the absolute quiet it sounds like a shout. In response to my whisper the toes wiggle and one of the feet moves.
“Try to be quiet, he’s trying to sleep,” Ricky whispers and starts to walk past the feet.
“Trying is the key word,” the man under the carpet says in a gravelly voice still not ready to start a new day. There is movement under the carpet, “wait, and let me find my pants.” We follow orders and stand in the path while the carpet, the roof of the man’s home moves up and down as he prepares to meet the day. The feet are replaced by a dirty head covered with curly light brown hair. His blue eyes, the only washed part of the man, look us over and seem to approve.
“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting company,” he explains as he crawls out of his dwelling and buttons his shirt and pants. “What brings you boys to this part of the river?” he asks like we have come for tea. We just stand there. “That’s a fine looking dog you have there,” he slaps the side of his leg a couple of times and Sally goes over to him in order to get her head rubbed. “Fine dog,” Sally gives him a nudge with her head.
Ricky asks the expected question, “you live here?”
“I’m here,” he pretends to pinch his arm, “I’m alive. Sure, I live here. So far I’ve lived every place I have ever been. Make yourselves at home,” he motions with his arm for us to find a place to sit just like my father does when people come to visit. Ricky and I find rocks to sit on. Sally curls up next to the man on the ground. “I’d invite you to breakfast but I haven’t been to the grocery lately and…”
Ricky takes the hint, “we have a few things we could share.”
I add, “it’s time for our lunch,” and pull the backpack off my back.
“You boys are going ta make fine neighbors,” the man says, all of a sudden looking very hungry. “Names,” he pauses for a few seconds like he’s selecting one, “name’s Jack” he doesn’t offer his hand to shake, like he understands he lives beneath a layer of dirt so we just exchange names.
My mother has packed four sandwiches and food for Sally along with several apples and juice boxes, “Peanut Butter and Jelly or Turkey?”
“P and J please,” Jack makes it sound like food from a fancy restaurant in town. “Hard to get a good P and J out here,” he unzips the sandwich bag and takes a huge first bite. “Did the angels send you?”
It sounds a little crazy but I answer like it’s a regular question, “we’re just on a hike to where the creek begins.”
“That’s what they tell people. They, the angels, tell people to walk up the creek and bring lots of P and J’s!” He gives me a grin that does nothing to let me know if he’s serious of not. He takes another huge bite that almost finishes the sandwich so I offer him a turkey sandwich to have at the ready. “Great neighbors,” he says as thanks so I dig out a juice box and apple too and hand them over. He takes care to make a nice neat pile next to him with the juice box on the bottom and the apple on top of the sandwich. “Real pretty up there.”
It takes me a moment to realize he talking about where the creek begins, “we saw it from an airplane.”
“You been up there?” he says in awe. “Are you angels?” he asks without a hint of a joke but Ricky assumes it is and laughs.
“We’re just regular boys!” Ricky explains. “But thanks.”
Jack just nods and looks at the ground like he’s okay with us not being angels but a little disappointed. He looks back up at us and says, “well, you regular boys have made my day.”
Ricky notices the turkey sandwich and apple have disappeared so he digs in this sack for another small bag of cookies and hands them over.
The man looks like he might cry but instead pops a whole cookie into his mouth at once, with his mouth still full of cookie he says something that sounds a little like, “good cookie” and then pops in another one. I figure it’s time for a water bottle and hand one over but he turns it down and after swallowing his cookie says, “only drink pure creek water,” and then he rethinks his action, “not that your water’s not good enough.” We start packing up. “Shame you need to leave so soon,” he says sounding just like my father again. “See you on the way back down?”
We say our good-byes and get back on the trail as Jack crawls back under his carpet to finish his nap.
The trees start to grow taller, the brushes and grass are replaced by pine needles. The creek spills over rocks now and sometimes the path is hard granite instead of dirt.