Right down the hill from us, on our way to town, there’s a gravel driveway with a poorly hand-lettered sign next to it. The sign says, "Firewood U-Haul". Part of the terms of our lease is that we have to leave the woodshed as full as it was when we moved in, and this means we need to buy a cord or two of wood. So a few weeks ago I drove down this driveway to see what they had for sale. I parked in front of the manufactured home in front of a large corral being cleared and fenced. There was a man working on the tractor out in the corral. I walked up to the door and knocked. There was no answer so after a minute or two I knocked again.
I noticed that the man on the tractor had seen me, but I waited on the doorstep for him to acknowledge me. Finally, he turned off the tractor and hollered, "They’re not home."
"I’m interested in the firewood for sale," I hollered back, as I moseyed over to the corral fence.
"That’s me," he replied. There was a long pause. I was tempted to fill it up quickly, but I remembered that out here, the normal pause time in a conversation is a lot longer than in the city. I let the pause hang for a minute, and then asked, "How much are you asking for it?"
"How much you need?" he asked, and I realized that I had moved to the question of money too soon; I should have chatted about what sort of wood it was for a few sentences first.
"I need more than I’ll be able to fit into my little pickup truck, so just a pickup load for now." We’re still hollering back and forth. He hasn’t stepped out of the tractor and I haven’t stepped inside the corral fence. He ponders my needs and looks over the pickup truck for a long moment.
"That sounds fine to me," I nod.
"Back it up over here," and he nods towards a pile of big rounds, as he starts the tractor up again. You will notice that the whole transaction has required him to say 15 words. It took not quite 5 minutes. I back my truck up to the pile of huge old Douglas Fir rounds, and realize that there’s no way I’m going to be able to lift them into the pickup by myself. He’s apparently already thought of this, because he drives the tractor over and uses the claw to load each round into the bed of the truck. He’s quite skilled with the machine, picking up each round in such a precise way that he can set it down exactly where he wants it, and then releasing it so gently that I almost don’t percieve the weight of all that wood in the truck until I notice that the rear tires are less and less visible under the fenders. After the next round, I motion to him that that’s enough.
He turns off the tractor and walks over to the pickup, looking at the muddy driveway where I’m parked. "You shouldn’t get stuck," he comments. He is only an inch or two taller than me, and probably weighs 40 pounds less than me. He has dark hair, weathered dirty skin. He’s wearing a black leather biker vest over a faded black t-shirt with the arms ripped off. On the shirt is a logo for a band I don’t recognize. He’s wearing well-used work boots. He’s probably in his 50’s, but I could be off a decade in either direction. I hand him the $20 bill and thank him. He says he’ll have some more split stuff later in the week, and I thank him again.
A week or so later, I stop to get another load. He wants to charge me $25 for the already split load. A fair deal, but I only have 20’s on me. I don’t want to offer him less than he’s asked for, I know he doesn’t have change, and I don’t want to give him a $15 tip. I tell him that I’m going to need two more pickup loads, and I’ll just give him $80 right now for all three loads and come pick up the rest on Sunday.
We went over today and didn’t see him outside. He’s always been outside before, but I have the impression that he doesn’t live in the manufactured home out front. I think he lives out behind the corrals. We park in the driveway, just before the really soupy mud, and walk towards his place. As I approach it, I see that it’s a camp trailer, supplemented with a complicated arrangement of tarps and plywood. I stand several yards back from the arrangement, and holler, "Hello!" a few times. I’m a Montana girl; I know that some people have wide-ranging personal space, and that sometimes standing on someone’s doorstep to knock on their door is already infringing upon their space. That, and I’m not sure where exactly the door is. There is a door in the side of the plywood arrangement, but it’s not clear if it’s just functioning as a wall or if it’s in use. Then I hear him take a few steps through the camper, walk through the plywood arrangement, and open the door. For a second, I get a brief glimpse inside the door. It’s dark in there, and I assume there’s no power in the place. The floor is dirt, and I get the impression of some stacked crates acting as furniture. I can see through one of the windows of the camper, and it seems like there are clothes, or maybe sheets against the window. I assume that the plywood arrangement is the living area, and the camper is the bedroom.
"Looking for some wood?" he asks. He’s wearing jeans that probably used to be blue, but are ingrained with wood dust and chainsaw grease, turning them a green-grey sheen. He’s wearing a faded black sleeveless t-shirt again, but I don’t remember if it’s the same one from before.
"Follow me," he says. As we walk past the truck, he indicates that we should follow in the truck. Preston drives behind him while he walks a quarter mile or so down a dirt road that encircles the property. His friendly Akita dog follows along. The dog’s name is Kita.
He shows us a pile of split wood, and indicates another pile of scrap rounds that we’re also free to take if we want it. He needs us to take this load so that he can get in there and split more for our last load. He’ll have the rest of it split later that afternoon. We load up the split stuff and take it home.
Later this afternoon, we go back and he’s not outside again. We walk back to the shanty set-up and I holler from the end of the driveway. I have to shout "hello" a few times before I hear a woman’s voice yelling back.
"Who is it?" she yells, without opening the door.
"We’re looking for some wood," I holler back.
"Bob, it’s for you," she yells. I know that the space in there is not that big, and I can hear her loud and clear from outside, so I wonder why she has to yell so loudly. We hear Bob from inside the trailer yell, "I didn’t get it cut."
There’s a long pause, and I’m not sure how to ask him when we should come back without sounding pushy, but in very few words, since we’re still yelling from the end of the driveway. Before I can think of anything to say, hear Bob’s voice again from inside the trailer. "Tomorrow," he yells.
We wait for another moment in case there is more coming, but there doesn’t seem to be. Preston yells back, "Have a good night," and we head back home.