|The hillside by the reservoir|
August, 2001As the middle of August dragged toward September, my focus fell upon creating a dwelling on the hillside by the reservoir.
I set about doing so in earnest.
There was beginning to arrive, a perceptible chill to air on most nights, a harbinger of fall. Virginia winters are no joke; they can get a few feet of snow.
I entered myself in a race against nature, my goal being to have constructed a comfortable shelter in advance winters arrival.
I had decided as I sat by the fire, pondering my pit, that the dimensions would be 12 feet long, by 9 feet wide, matching those of a common jail cell, if for no other reason than the sense of irony it that, since I intended to enjoy a "freedom" from things like the burden of handing over chunks of money to a landlord, and from being physically intruded upon (I would be as hard to find as would Osama Bin Laden, should anyone set about trying). I would be free to do pretty much as I chose, in my "home."
I was working at the gas station and would ostensibly get off of work at 6 in the morning, but, more often than not, Modou would ask me to stay on the register (he pronounced it "Reg-iss-ter") until he had emptied the safe, counted the money and done all the paperwork; sometimes until 7:30, giving me an hour and a half of overtime per day.
Shouldering my backpack -which was of the mountain climbing variety; huge and divided into separate compartments with aluminum slats for reinforcement; a $120 value, -I walked first, about a quarter mile, to the Kroger's Market, for food.
My "special diet," a product of having grown up with intollerance of certain foods, was comprised of about 12 ingredients -ones that I had determined through experimentation to be healthy for myself- fish, kale, spinach, broccoli or other greens, basil, oregano and other "Italian" spices, trail mix, salsa, garlic, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, mushrooms, onions, and an assortment of fruit juices and energy drinks; and a bottle of wine; every day, a bottle of wine, and of a different vintage each day; usually a bottle under 10 bucks, but occasionally one of twice that amount, if I couldn't resist the label, or words such as "Alexander Valley."
Then, I would walk another quarter mile to the Wal-Mart, where I would pick up "household" things, often from the camping supply section, anything to make myself comfortable, from oil for the lamps, to a carpet to lay over the floor at night, after I was done whacking away at it with the pick ax or shovel.
I also frequented the pet food section.
I was becoming a friend to the birds, chipmunks and squirrels, by my showing up each morning with nuts and seeds, ancillary to the ones that I ate myself, which I would place in a designated spot. Pretty soon they knew my schedule and would station a "watch bird" along my path that would sound a signal, meaning that the big underground dwelling creature with the nuts and berries was on his way.
I would first, upon arriving, build a fire in the pit, using red oak, hickory, walnut, live oak, or any combination; while the fish sat marinating in olive oil and vinegar and hot sauce and spices, on on a sheet of tin foil, folded up around the edges.
Then, the wine would be uncorked and sipped, while the bed of embers built up enough to throw a steady heat, suitable, based upon my nine years of experience, for cooking fish.
In between sips of wine, while listening to a battery powered AM radio, I would survey the clay foundation which I was hollowing out, trying to envision the finished dwelling, imagining architectural enhancements, such as the making of a latrine by burying a PVC pipe following the angle of the downward slope to the reservoir, making it break ground about 50 feet from my place, with a porto-let style bowl embedded in the wall on that side, complete with the little disinfectant bar which is ubiquitous to restrooms.
The place was going to have a roof at ground level, covered with dirt, as insulation, and planted over with vegetation. Only the chimney would protrude, hidden under a pile of brush.
The exit would consist of a ladder, made of two by fours, or a staircase, leading up to a trap door, hinged in the middle, which could be opened like a sunroof, for ventilation, or closed against the cold. That would be painted on the topside to blend with its surroundings. A dead tree could be dragged over it, before I left, so that even if someone stumbled upon the place, they might just walk right over the roof, never the wiser.
I spent almost as much time imagining as I did digging.
After eating what was always an excellent and healthy morning meal, and finishing the wine, I was invariably in a proper frame of mind for burning off some calories by swinging the pick ax and shovel and hoisting boulders up over the edge, chucking them as far as I could into a pile which was already the size of my car by the middle of August.
After removing the grill and the carpet and shovelling out the ashes, I would go to work on the floor, measuring my progress by a few inches some days, several inches others, depending upon weather I was encountering granite, or clay .
There was a tendency for the hole to narrow as it got deeper it got, and I had to pay attention to shaving the edges, to insure that the sides would be vertical. Using a "plumb bob" which I had gotten at the Lowes Hardware Store, along the way "home"" helped.
I would be making a lot more trips to Lowes before my dwelling would eventually be finished. I took the, still llegal, Civic from where it sat, about 75 feet from my place, to get the heavier things, like lumber and bags of gravel and concrete (to finish the floor).
But, first the pit had to be dug out to the projected dimensions.
I measured my progress, daily, by how far up my body the rim of the hole aligned itself with.
It was just about shoulder height; or five feet deep, I remember; on September 11th, when, turning on my AM radio, the first words I heard were "The President has been evacuated to an undisclosed location..."
That was about 15 minutes after the World Trade Center attacls, and that is how I learned about them -standing up to my shoulders in a 9' X 12' clay pit. I must have been buying fish at the time the buildings were struck.
I usually worked on the pit from the time I arrived back there in the morning, after getting off work, until about 10:30, my consumed meal fueling an intense two hour workout, as I strained with all my effort to roll boulders up the face of the wall and push them out, and swung the ax like a madman.
I would then lie down and sleep peacefully for a full and healthy eight hours, pulling a tarp over most of the pit to attenuate the sunlight.
All of this eating well and sleeping well and getting a lot of exercise, put me in a shape approaching the best that I had ever attained, and at the age 38. I felt great most of the time.Time itself flowed like a lazy river and it seemed that I could be productive and unhurried, and get a weeks worth of enjoyment out of each day. I looked forward to work days as much as I did days off.
I woke each afternoon, only when I felt fully refreshed, usually as the sun was low in the western sky over the reservoir, a full five or six hours before I had to be in the little booth, ringing up packs of Newports and Philly Blunts, and the rest on pump 12, giving me time to enjoy some of the money that was filling my pockets.
To the south of the pit, there was cut out of the clay, a canyon by a small stream which originated by the road and snaked its way towards the reservoir. Its rather steep walls provided much privacy as they curved away, out of sight, both upstream and down.
I dammed this stream up, using rocks.
Then, I vigorously agitated the water in the resultant pool with my shovel, making it became cloudy with leaves, sand, mud and other sediment dislodged from its perimeter. I then scooped out the muddy water, as if bailing out a boat, then let it refill with water.
I repeated this process (thirty two times, I counted). After each time, as water flowed in from upstream to replace what I had thrown out, the water became less and less cloudy until I could clearly see all the smooth rocks at the bottom, none smaller than a pebble. This would be my bathtub.
I would submerge my head in the invigorating 65 degree water, lather my hair with shampoo, and then re-submerge it, shaking it like a shark ripping apart its prey. Within a minute, all of the shampoo that had floated to the surface would have slowly drained out through the rocks of the dam, being replaced by crystal clear spring water.
I always bathed after having walked the mile and a half walk from the gas station to there, carrying my backpack which weighed an averag of 40 pounds. By then, I was usually starting to break a sweat and welcomed the thought of plunging into the cool spring water. It was always invigorating. All the way up until December 10th, a day when the outside temperature was 65 degrees, I recall, did I use that tub. Stepping out of the water, even on that day, the air felt great, by comparison.
I was a clean homeless guy.
I made regular, highly vigilant, trips in the illegal Civic, to a laundromat, transporting all of my clothes and blankets the two miles, in a bag which Santa Clause would think was huge. It wasn't that I lacked the physical conditioning required to tote it on my back, just that I was keeping away from the appearance of being homeless. There was a certain satisfaction which came from having none of the people whom I associated with ever wonder if I was homeless.
"Where Do You Live; The Woods?"
I only got caught once driving the illegal Civic. I can't remember now, where I was returning from, but, I was almost to the logging trail, when I was pulled over, perhaps due to the dark tint on the cars windows. The only legitimate place to turn off of that road before the water treatment plant at the end, was at an apartment complex named The Woods Of Jefferson.
The cop probably assumed that I was going there, and hence, was almost home.
He probably didn't want to deal with the paperwork involved in citing me for a cracked windshield, overly tinted windows, no registration nor insurance, and an attached licence plate from a Caddilac in Georgia, either.
He asked me: "Where do you live; the woods?," referring to those apartments, right up the street.
I said: "Yes, officer."
He let me go, telling me to drive the remaining few hundred yards to that apartment complex, park the Civic, and not to let him see me driving it on the byways of Charlottesville, until I had made it legal.
I quickly uncovered the trail, parked the Civic back under the tarp about a tenth of a mile in, hid the trail, and resolved to be very careful should I again take the car out on the streets.
I had fallen into a sort of routine, by late September, facilitated by the regularity of my full-time work schedule at the gas station.
Before leaving the pit in the late afternoons on work days, I would bag up all of my trash, and then walk my "secret" path to the state road, cross over it to another path made by someone else, which emerged behind the Wal-Mart, by a dumpster, into which I tossed the bag. I was a clean homeless guy.
I would then typically go to a coffee house, called Brownstone's Coffee, for a cup of Java, and a newspaper. By now, I was an avid reader of The Wall Street Journal, as I was working 50 hours per week and had no real bills to pay. The barristers at that coffee house, most of them college aged girls, seemed perplexed over the incongruency of my appearance, and the smell of wood smoke which I exuded; with the fact that I would frequently produce a thick wad of money to pay for my coffee, then would leave tips in their jar.
"Do you work?" asked one of them, a very beautiful girl named Tiffany, one day.
"Yeah, I work at the East Coast station on the night shift," I replied, not helping to solve the mystery of the wad of money, in any way.
Then, I would often go to the library, or the mall, where everybody I met eventually got to know me and seemed to like me.
I then went to the gas station, a little before 10 p.m.
I was never late; never missed a night. I saw no need to take off from work, having no pressing engagements nor obligations, one of the fruits of the freedom, which I had worked to obtain.
I was becoming interested in stashing as much as I could each week into the stock market by this time, also. The World Trade Center Attacks had caused a mini-crash, but things were starting to rebound, as the end of September approached.
I began to take notice of a certain skinny lady with long brown hair who was pretty much a regular customer at the East Coast gas station, on Route 29, in Charlottesville.
She would stop her aquamarine Mustang, at the same pump (number 11), at about the same time each night, and would pump about the same amount of gas.
That particular pump was the one closest to, and right in front of, the booth where I sat. It was my theory that she did that to save time, in coming to and from the booth, and to keep herself within my sight, keeping things "above board," precluding me from suspecting her of anything shady.
She stepped out of the Mustang those nights, wearing a Pizza Hut shirt, jeans, work boots, and with a stubbornly determined expression set on her face, her lips pressed into a thin line, and her whole face pinched tightly. She was "all business."
A skinny wisp of a thing she was, with the light brown hair in a pony tail that hung to her waist. There was always something masculine about her dress, and it crossed my mind that she might be a lesbian. Those were some heavy duty work boots, and if it was cold, she would wear over her uniform, a heavy lumberjack shirt, of the "northern dyke" style, which I had become familiar with while living in Northhampton Massachusetts, a lesbian stronghold.
With her lips pursed tightly, an expression conveying equal parts determination, stubbornness and anger, she would take money out of a zippered wallet, that she would then place on the back of her car in about the same spot each time, then count out bills within my view, as if trying to show me that she actually had the money to pay for her fuel, and wasn't going to do a "drive off."
She would pump about the same amount each time, and then come to my window, paying to the exact penny. Her lips, pressed together like a vise so that she almost had to speak through her nose, would loosen just enough so that she could tell me just how much she was handing me, so there would be no misunderstanding, I assumed. "Here's $9.88!"
If the old-fashioned analog pumps which the East Coast station had happened to stop between digits, she would round up to the next higher cent. She wasn't trying to take a penny from anyone.
She was all business; didn't smile.
I might have taken that as an omen.
Instead, I took upon myself the challenge of trying to make her smile once.
On each successive night, I spoke to her, trying to charm her with witticisms.
One night, I was finally able to see a quick, tight lipped half-smile, on her face before she said quickly "I'd better get back to work," as if sensing that she had let down a certain defense, and sped off.
Over the course of the next few weeks, our talks grew longer than two sentences.
I was able to find common ground with her by relating some of my past experiences with pizza delivery. She seemed impressed by the fact that, when I had that job, I had recorded all of my delivery data into a Lotus spreadsheet on my computer, including hours, tips, number of runs, miles and expenses, and even factored in the miles per gallon that my car had been getting, and had concluded that I was only clearing around the minimum wage, when it was "all said and done," over the course of a year.
One night; one cold night in late September, she arrived at the booth holding a cup of coffee. "Here, I brought you coffee. You must be freezing in there," she said through clenched teeth.
Coffee soon became a regular gift, and our conversations became a little more personal.
I found out that her name was Xanna and that she owned a house, 30 miles to the north of the station, out in the country on a route so "rural" that it had no name, only a number.
I wasn't ready to tell her that I was living in a hole in the woods.
Nobody in Charlottesville, seemed to suspect that I was homeless. Outside of the comment made by Tiffany, the barrister at the coffee shop that I "always smell like smoke," (which I explained was due to my "grilling a lot,") no one seemed to look at me askance.
As October arrived, Xanna brought me a sweater one cool night, saying that it had been in her attic, left there by a former roommate. It looked like it had never been worn.
Our talks became longer. After getting off of work, she would come back by, even though she had already gotten gas earlier. We would sit in her car and talk while she ran the heater, through the early morning, when customers of the station were few and far between.
Xanna was blind in one eye and had no sense of smell, possibly as a result of beatings by a father, who had wanted sons instead of daughters and who called Xanna the "runt of the litter."
She was demure and soft spoken, as were a lot of Virginia women that I had come across. They acted as if they had been conditioned to think that a woman was inferior to a man and that her place was to be "seen but not heard." She just about lived on Diet Dr. Pepper, too, by the way..
She had just ended a relationship with a guy named Tom.
She said that Tom hadn't worked, but rather, sat at her house drinking Crown Royal and playing video games and cranking Metallica on her stereo, while she worked two jobs to support him. She said that she came home from work with the wrong cigarettes once (he only smoked 100's) and he threw the carton at her and made her go back out to get the right ones.
She had finally come to a boiling point and asked him to leave, under threat of bringing the Law into the matter.
He left, but not before beating her and sodomizing her on the kitchen floor on his way out.
His black Monte Carlo, in a state of disrepair, sat in her front yard as a reminder of him. She was allowing him to keep it there. She never did call the law.
The name "Xanna" had come to Peggy (as that was her given name) in a dream, which spurred her to get a court order to legally change to it. "I can't stand being called Peggy because it reminds me of my past and saps my self esteem," she said.
She got $850 per month through some kind of Trust Fund which a departed grandmother had left to her (her siblings inherited real estate and larger amounts, but Peggy got the runts portion of the settlement, according to her); still, she was a workaholic, and would complain that they were working her to death at the Pizza Hut; taking advantage of her. She figured that she had no choice, because other workers would slack off, leaving early, or skipping shifts, altogether. She would cover for them. "Someone has to do the work!"
She worked many hours and then slept in her Mustang in the parking lot outside the Pizza Hut, ostensibly to be there bright and early to clock in the next day.
She complained about it and it contributed to the almost permanent scowl that she wore, yet, she continued to do it.
I finally gleaned enough about her to feel safe in confiding to her about the "house" that I was building by the reservoir. She nodded her head after I told her as if to imply that she had pretty much figured out already that I must live in a clay pit.
Once she learned that, she began to mention her house more frequently. She said that it had a hot tub, one of the finest, which had cost her something like five thousand dollars.
I told her how comfortable and private my dwelling out by the reservoir was. The temperature inside didn't drop below 49 degrees, according to my indoor/outdoor digital thermometer, which had a memory function that recorded the extremes of hot and cold. Without any heat source, the place stayed close to the temperature of the earth.
It was well hidden, with the trapdoor which I could drag a downed evergreen tree over, to make it invisible.
The fact that it was on city property meant that the land surrounding it would probably never be developed.
I had plans to save about 12 thousand bucks per year, and after 5 such years, do something with the money to "better" myself.
She brought me a kerosene heater next, to heat the place in the woods that I had described to her. She said that it was an extra one that she had had in her attic. I could then add kerosene to the list of things which I loaded my backpack with for the mile and a half walk each morning.
Then, lamp oil, after she gave me seven oil lamps, which she said had been laying around her house.
By then, I had finished hollowing my house out to the desired dimensions, put a roof over it, waterproofed the roof, covering it with dirt. Inside, I had a small fireplace, which I used to cook food on. Over it was a "boot" from the "air conditioning duct work" section of Lowes, which connected to a six inch pipe that went up through the roof.
I was sleeping on an air mattress, had a high performance AM/FM radio with a tunable loop antennae on which I could pull in stations from as far away as St. Louis, Missouri (700 miles), an indoor/outdoor thermometer with which I could confirm that I was warm and comfortable inside my dwelling, while it was cold outside; at a glance.
I got a lot of satisfaction out of being warm and dry, while it was cold, wet, windy and nasty outside.
Sometimes when I was entering my path into the woods, on such days, I envisioned people driving by and feeling sorry for me, and wondering how anyone could deal with having to go sleep in the woods, especially in such terrible weather.
Xanna bought me an Ibanez acoustic guitar for my birthday, giving it to me a week early, as she was dropping me off at the head of my trail.
Xanna Sees My House
I invited her to see my home by the reservoir, around the middle of November.
It was almost "finished" by then.
The only additional touches that I had planned for it was the laying of a concrete floor with wall to wall carpeting to cover it, and the hacking into a nearby thicket where I would set up a bank of solar panels, running the current to my dwelling by underground wires in order to charge a row of "deep cycle" batteries (wired in parallel) during the day, so that I could have electricity, to eventually power a laptop computer, which I would use as a recording studio.
But, the house (ok, bunker...) was warm and dry, by that time.
I had gotten rib eye steak, and other sundries to cook on my grill. I got Zima for her, and red wine for myself. We had a nice dinner.
She remarked that my place was more comfortable than her house; "less drafty." We had sex for the first time that night, by the light of oil lamps and with the classical station playing on my high performance AM/FM radio.
I got the sense that she wanted me to move away, into her house, but I also sensed that she thought it would be a hard sell to get me to leave my convenient and draft free place to move 30 miles out into the country, even if I would be in a house. My dwelling was a tough act to follow.
She seemed to form a quiet resolve, though, and a determination not to give up trying.
I would have laughed if someone had told me that she would use witchcraft to get me to move there.
I didn't believe in ghosts, either...