This one’s a little long, but next week’s is a little short. It evens out.
Tuesday, July 4, 2023
July 4 really meant something this year: for the first time in 9 years, we actually have some freedom to celebrate. There are still plenty of junta-symps around Planet Georgia, of course, and the Great Backlash against the churches isn’t exactly helping with that — but even the symps were in a festive mood this year. The President kicked off the celebrations on Saturday, and they ran pretty much through today. We spent the weekend in town again, and they had the fireworks (huge!) last night so everyone could be home before dark today. Of course, they had another “recognize the vets” moment. Rene said, “This whole war-hero thing is kind of embarrassing. Major Shevchuk and Manny Velasquez are the real heroes… they walked out and faced down the tanks while me and Sammy hid up over the dunes with RPGs.”
“You’re what we’ve got,” I reminded him. “Besides, when the shooting started, it was you and Sammy drawing the fire. It’s your day as much as theirs. Besides, didn’t Manny go to RoT?” The funny thing was, his fling-girl and the two brothers who accosted him at the chautauqua were there and cheering for him as loud as for any of the others. I guess it goes to show… well, I’m not sure what it goes to show. Maybe celebrity conquers all?
Kim and Christina set up a table where they sold a few drawings. They made more money doing portraits… I think some people paid just to watch them go at it, side-by-side, switching sides and filling in each other’s parts and blending it into a consistent whole. People were taking pictures and video, and some of them were media stringers. One video taker had release forms and even interviewed them. I had to remind myself how fascinating it was to me when I watched them work like that when they were kids. But I still thought it was funny, how the interviewer was a little taken aback when she learned that Christina the artist is also (at age 19) closing in on a Ph.D. in biochemistry. At least they don’t use their old Spanglish argot anymore (except for “Holá, y’all”); they got out of that habit after they got drafted (or signed up, in Rene’s case).
People are on the move this summer — lots of young people are taking that first summer after high school to see a little of the country before settling into college or work, as well as some older folks with no family ties or any other reason to stay put. Not many my age though… but there’s a few. I don’t see much traffic at the bicycle stop now that Luke opened up his place down at the crossroads; most people just keep rolling by and refill their water bottles there. But there are some who skip Luke’s and come up here.
We came home from town this morning; I went down to check the water jug and it was dry. When I brought it back, I saw a ratty-looking bike lying in a patch of weeds toward the road and smelled the tobacco… you don’t see many people smoking nowadays, especially travelers (who need all the wind they can get). The guy associated with the bike and smoke, nearly hidden in the shadows of the pergola, looked even rattier than the bike. He started up, and I waved him back and set the water jug next to him.
“I put this rest stop up for everyone,” I said. “Most people go on down to Luke’s now, but I know people still use it — the water jug gets emptied out.”
He nodded, took one more drag on his hand-rolled cigarette, then gently stubbed it out and pinched the end. I realized he was a lot younger than I thought at first — not much older than Kim, if that. He had aged before his time.
“Yeah,” he said finally, fishing an old pill bottle out of a pocket. He twisted the cap off, made sure the end of his cig was cold, then dropped it in and closed it up before pocketing it again. “We appreciate it.” He glanced toward the corner; I followed his cue and saw markings scratched on the post:
“What are those?”
“It means this is a safe place to rest a while.”
“Oh… like hobo symbols? From the Depression?”
“There’s a depression goin’ on now, ’case you haven’t noticed.” He shook his head. “No… sorry. I shouldn’t take it out on you. You try to help out, anyway. We know who’s good people.”
He pulled his cap off and scratched his head for a moment. It looked like he cut his own hair, as short as possible… and suddenly remembered I’d seen several people like him at the festivities over the weekend, always around the edges of the crowd. “I guess you’d call us opt-outs. We didn’t want to live under the junta, so we opted out. Then there’s the junta-symps who don’t want to reconcile. Hard life, but it’s a free life.”
“The junta’s gone now.”
“Yeah. But it ain’t that easy. Once you’ve opted out, it’s hard to come back. You got no idea how hard it can be to come back.”
“I’ve tried to help people get started back when,” I told him. “I think I have a pretty good idea how hard it could be.” I was thinking of one of The Boy’s old girlfriends… what did I call her? (Ms. Almost Einstein, but I had to go back and look it up.) She lived with us for a bit over a year back before stuff went pear-shaped, and I figured it would take a minimum of $7000 (in 2006 dollars) to get her on her own two feet: about half of that for a decent car, deposits on apartment and utilities, gadgetry and clothing, and basic living expenses until the paycheck started kicking in. Not too many people drive cars nowadays, outside of special occasions, but you still need a good head start to get started.
“Betcha haven’t been there yourself though.” He fished the pill bottle out of his pocket and started playing with it. Probably needed more smoke.
“You’re right,” I said, “but I think I at least understand it. Here, let’s sit outside where you can smoke.”
He nodded and we carried the stools out. He lit up as quickly as he could without looking desperate. “We pretty much keep movin’, that way nobody gets tired of us bein’ around,” he said. A lot of guys go north for the summer, south for the winter. Me, I’m goin’ northwest then west this year. I figure to spend the winter out in San Diego, if I get that far. Oregon if not.”
“How do you eat?”
“However we can. One reason I’m goin’ west this year, I can forage. Stuff will be picked over pretty good if I took I-95 or US-1 up the coast, or the Nashville-Indy-Chicago route up I-65. Where foraging doesn’t work, I’ll try to get a job on a farm somewhere. If nobody wants to let me work for my food, I’ll steal it.”
I chewed on that for a minute. “I’d rather get a little work out of you than let you steal out of my garden,” I laughed. “Not that I think you’d steal here.”
“Not here,” he agreed. “Junta-symps might do it, but most of us won’t take from someone who gives us water and shelter. The junta-symps, maybe. Not the rest of us though.”
He took one last drag on his cig, then put out the last half-inch and dropped it back in the pillbox. “We get outta the habit of talkin’ to anyone still in — in the system, I mean. Guess I’d better be goin’.”
“Take care of yourself, okay?”
“Yeah. I try. You do the same.” He wheeled his bike to the pavement and rolled on down the hill without looking back.