Don Bauder 7:39 a.m., May 22
It had just occurred to Jim that I might be a cop. An undercover. That or some punk, some city brat with lousy friends and a downright stupid concept of a really great Saturday night.
Either way I was a stranger. An outsider. One of Them.
"Tell you what, boy. Person's gotta be a real fool to come lookin' for trouble around here," said Jim, great white mustachioed Jim with boots on table, sparking a cigarette in the dark.
It was well past sunset and the big-head figurine of Hank Williams Jr. – free born man! - was barely visible on the shelf behind Jim's smoking silhouette, forever trapped between verses of corn-pone wisdom which never would be uttered from that foot-tall polypropylene caricature.
That was the first thing I'd noticed in there hours earlier when I'd wandered in off of highway 94 - that giant Hank Williams Jr. head. I had bicycled out to Potrero beneath a brutal midday sun, twenty-some miles east of Jamul with a substantial elevation gain, and in my exhaustion the Head had assumed a surreal personage.
Within that roadside storage shed supplying the only general store in town, amongst the sacks of goat feed and hay pellets, bulk dog chow and surplus plastic pirate swords, the Head seemed elevated, a resident elite. Somehow…in charge of things.
The Head called the shots - nay, was God!
The Head had leered from behind black lenses the moment I walked in and struck up conversation with Jim. The Head had indulged me patiently, cool-as-you-please, as I told of my encounter with what appeared to be a meth-addled redneck down the street who had found my tent beneath an oak tree in the bed of Potrero creek and roosted me out with loud promises of shotguns and shackles. The Head had observed me with a smug certainty – country boy can survive! – while Jim recounted the Harris fire of ’07 which destroyed at least 1,500 homes, burned over 500,000 acres of land, and forced the evacuation of over a million San Diego residents – the largest evacuation in American history.
“My mother-in-law’s was the first place to go,” said Jim. “Fire started right up the road. They told us to evacuate, but boy, you can bet we stayed right here and fought that thing. None of these buildings would be here today if we didn’t.”
He studied my reaction for a moment and continued.
“This is the country, boy – God’s country! – and out here we got to take matters into our own hands. The fire department was busy fighting outside fronts. We had nobody to rely on, and that was just fine. We stood right here, flames bigger ‘an you ever seen, boy, keeping down them hot spots and keeping an eye on that wind.”
But his well-deserved pride quickly shifted to resentment when I asked about how the whole thing had started in the first place.
“Officially, the source is unknown. But, boy, everyone here knows that fire was started by them illegals up on the hill, cooking some damn thing and not tending to their fire.”
Jim's thoughts went far-off for a moment.
“Damn shame,” he said finally, voice lower now. “Damn shame.”
I switched the subject, then, to other things. We smoked a few more cigarettes. Jim's nephew brought us each a plate of fish and rice and we ate in the dark of the shed while Jim's pit bull pretended not to be completely possessed by the desire to devour everything.
They were good people, this family operating the only store in a town of maybe a thousand residents. I could see that they were strong, capable people, who worked on their own terms and took care of their own, who weren’t so keen on the idea of taking any sort of flack from anybody, whose biggest problem was always one of Them, someone from out there, some stranger who goes to cook a can of grub one night and ends up burning down half the county, or a state undercover who parks in a beat-up mini-van by the post office and just waits for one of the locals to do something weird. They didn’t need that. That’s why they were out here, in Potrero, really nowhere, for that exact reason.
To get away from things like that.
Jim considered these things as we ate, how you can always try to get away from that mess, all that mess that nobody needs, really, but it doesn’t matter how far you go, how bad you just want to be left in peace, that stranger outsider not-us-but-Them mess creeps right on in anyway and before you know it that mess's sitting down in your shed eating a plate of fish and rice - your fish and rice! – and making dumb doggie talk to your monster pit bull who would rip that kid's face off at one word and…
The Head looked on disapprovingly.
His countenance betrayed a different mood, now, a decisive severity, as Jim outlined the community’s sentiments towards trouble makers. Outsiders. The Head scrutinized my reaction, his immortal lenses – saying, be careful about the stones you throw, boy! - penetrating to the very core of me.
Sweet Lord, I realized. This giant synthetic Hank Williams Jr. God head object is judging me!
“You got a hell of a place out here Jim,” I said, both honestly and out of the desire to appease my plastic persecutor. “And it’s obvious you guys don’t need to be bothered by people who don’t call this place home. I’d better be finding a place to camp now. Thanks for the talk and the grub.”
There was a long silence. Jim looked at me. Hank looked at me. The dog looked at the empty plate in my hand.
“Ya know what, boy? Don’t you bother about that. Out here we believe in helping people. We got an extra trailer you can sleep in for the night if you want. You’re welcome to it.”
I was shocked. What had happened? Was there a tear in ole Hank’s beer? Had I passed?
It was a genuinely kind gesture and I thanked Jim for it. I was, after all, one of Them. The outsiders. That heck of a mess.
“Don’t you worry, boy,” Jim responded as he put out the night’s last cigarette. “Did I forgot to mention? This here, this is God’s country.”