They had lit a campfire, though it was a warm day and it wasn’t time to cook yet. It was a ritual. Ranger had built a ring out of the least-broken cinder blocks he could find. He’d done what he could to level it so the old grill he’d found by the railroad embankment would sit more or less straight. He was proud of his work. It had been important to do something for the encampment, too.
He was new to this, and he was an old man. He knew he had to work his way into the clique if he was going to stay and not be shunned or actually hurt or robbed. Of course, he had nothing much for anyone to steal, except his debit card. Unlike most of the boys, he had worked his whole life, for all the good it had done him. His Social Security payment couldn’t even cover a crappy room downtown. It kept him fed, let him buy clothes at the thrift shop, paid for a gym membership so he could shower once a week. Well, that was all right then. If he had to live out his life as some sort of sloppy monk, he would do it. He could build a good fire too, if there was dry wood. “You guys,” he told Herc, who was smiling into the flames. “How come you can live out here for years and never learn how to build a fire?”
Herc laughed and spit into the flames. “What you think, Ranger? We was never Boy Scouts. We was the kids they told ’em not to hang out with!” Herc rolled his big shoulders and laughed again. Every time he laughed, his broken tooth caught Ranger’s eye. “And you know what? They was right. If them Boy Scouts had hung out with us, we woulda just taught ’em to smoke dope all day. Hey, let’s go buy us some food.”
The encampment was in a shallow ravine behind a shopping mall. A scatter of yellow-leaved trees dappled the ravine with fluttering shadows but didn’t really hold back the heat. The most tolerable time of the day came when the broad blank gray behind of the shopping mall cast its shadow over part of the ravine. Herc and Ranger had their own spot along the wall.
There was a grocery store in the mall. Nobody liked to see the men from the encampment there, but they took their money anyway. The mall was a fading one, on the far side of town from where Ranger had lived. The groceries were second rate, as they always are in such places, but Ranger had given up worrying about his health, except for his teeth. He brushed his teeth every night. Herc had picked up the habit himself after becoming Ranger’s friend and protector. Ranger knew how to do things that made life in the encampment less difficult. It was his currency. In the narrow world of the encampment, he was a mensch.
Ranger smothered the fire, and they began the long trudge around to the front of the mall. The high gray wall seemed endless. It was broken only by an occasional utility door which no one had ever seen open. Blank, metal doors with heavy, severe-looking hinges. As they came closer, the graffiti began to appear.
The kids didn’t come near the encampment, not with guys like Herc around. Ranger and Herc walked heavy-footed along the narrow path worn into the weeds that grew behind the mall, kicking away smeared styro cups now and then. Their own trash. Ranger disapproved and dedicated one day a week to picking up the trash, which made Herc laugh. Ranger didn’t give a shit what Herc thought about it. If he had to live here now, he would pick up the trash if he wanted to.
They came around the corner and moved along the side wall to the parking lot. They were in sunlight now, and the lot glared as the sun reflected off hundreds of curved windshields. Ranger squinted. That used to be his life, too. It had been only six months, but it seemed alien to him now.
They went into the grocery store. Ranger kept himself tall, but he noticed that Herc suddenly hunched down, trying to make himself invisible. The security guard, a thin young man in an oversized uniform, looked at them and nodded. He was the good one, and they went on into the brightly lighted aisles. Herc pushed the cart. It had become Ranger’s privilege to pick out what they would buy. Ranger knew how to cook. He actually kept spices in his tent. He could make a meal out of bad cuts of meat, a can of string beans, and a potato. He could make corn cakes on the old iron frying pan he had found and scrubbed with sand. He led Herc through the store. They picked up some beer as well.
They hiked back to the encampment, holding their paper grocery sacks tenderly, as if they were babies. When they got there, Ranger revived the fire, put the pan on it, and arranged the cold brown meat in a tidy circle. He waited till the heat sweated some fat out of it and then cut a small onion into the pan. Herc looked on, intent as a child, while Ranger dug through the bags.
“Man,” Herc said, “I shoulda learned to cook like that. You really was a Boy Scout, wasn’t you?”
“No,” Ranger said. “I never got along with the rules. But I have camped out in the High Sierras. There was nothing I liked better than camping out. That’s what I did till I first got married.”
Herc laughed. “Huh. Well, you doin’ it again, ain’t you?”
Ranger stared into the fire. “I guess I am, Herc,” he said. “I guess I am.”