“Prov'dence don't fire no blank ca'tridges, boys.”
- Mark Twain
- Mark Twain
It was called “Bruno’s Auto Salvage and Storage Center” and I was prepared to beg if I had to. I’d just found out that Uncle Jerry had allowed the storage fees to lapse on the place that all that remained of my family’s worldly goods was stored in. I didn’t have one thin dime to my name, or at least none that I could get at as it was set aside by the probate court for my schooling if I so choosed to get any. The letter I had snitched from the mailbox without anyone catching me said that if it wasn’t paid up but quick the contents of the storage locker would be auctioned off to pay overdue fees and interest.
Determined to save my inheritance any way I could I had gotten off the bus three stops before I was supposed to and walked to the address that had been on the letterhead of the past due notice. Going in I noticed a sign that said “help wanted” and scribbled at the bottom was a note that part of the pay included a rent-free storage space. An idea zinged me right were I stood as ideas sometimes do.
I pushed opened the door and asked, “May I speak to Mr. Bruno please?”
The guy behind the counter barely looked up before pointing me towards one of the biggest, ugliest dogs to have ever been birthed by dog kind.
Blinking for a moment and thinking fast I looked at the dog and started my shpiel. “How do you do sir? I noticed the sign on the door and was wondering if you had filled the advertised position yet. If you haven’t I’d like to apply. I have lots of good qualities that would make me handy to have around. I’m strong and don’t complain … well, at least rarely. I’m a bear for being on time; I’d rather be an hour early than five minutes late. I also note the hours you are looking for; it would be wonderful for me as I go to school in the morning and could come here in the afternoons and then pick up the bus to ride home with my cousins. I …”
A woman came storming into the office, took one look at me talking to the dog, then looked at the man behind the counter and said, “Oh no you don’t. Not another one of your crazy, worthless strays. I absolutely forbid it. I have too much to do as it is. I’m not going to babysit another that can’t answer a phone or add more than single digits together.”
The man fired back just as stormy, “I’ll hire who I please woman, it’s my business. Stop being so dat blasted bossy. Always trying to tell me what to do. You’d think after thirty years of marriage you would have learned what a useless sport that was. ‘Spect the real problem is you want me to hire that ditzy boyfriend of Sophie’s. Well it ain’t happening. Last time I hired one of your sister’s boyfriends he liked to steal me blind every time he came into work … and that wasn’t often as you’ll recall as most of the time he was laid up stoned or drunk.”
They went back and forth like that for a few more minutes and then the woman stormed out after shouting, “Well I wash my hands of the whole mess. Don’t look to me to train her. I told you I’m going back to working at the hair dresser’s and I mean it this time!”
I winced, expecting the door to shatter when she slammed out but the shock absorber on the door caught it just in the knick. The man gave me a disgusted look and said, “You better be worth the trouble.”
I started the next day and after a couple of weeks Mr. Harkins actually stopped looming over me and watching my every move like I was going to take the keys and break into every storage locker and cherry pick them … but he still kept his money locked up tighter than a spinster’s diary. I eventually learned the dog was actually Bruno the Fourth and that underneath all the mismatched fur “he” was actually a “she.” I was also given more responsibilities as I proved my value to the boss. Even Mrs. Harkins came down off her high horse after a bit when I didn’t complain about washing windows or cleaning the break room and bathroom over at the auto salvage’s maintenance garage.
Fast forward a few months and Mr. Harkins started getting curious. I never volunteered nothing because I was not, by nature, foolish but it was hard to not answer a direct question.
“You can stop slip sliding around it Kid. You say you needed a way to pay the rent on your locker but you could have gotten a job anywhere for that.”
I looked at him and asked, “Mr. Harkins have you seen what the unemployment numbers are for people my age? I came here looking to see if we could make a deal somehow until I could figure things out but that sign you had out was Providential.”
He snorted as he always did at any mention of religion. “Providential huh?”
“Yes sir. Providential. Not like you hear people say sometimes but a real feeling like God was opening a window when a door got slammed shut in your face.”
He snorted again but this time less cynically. “Had that feeling a time or two myself.”
Another time he caught me reading a book he’d left lying around. “Hey there Kid. That doesn’t belong to you.”
“No sir, I know. But it’s been a slow day and it looked like a good book. Pretty scary stuff though.”
Looking at me like he was weighing something about me he asked, “Don’t like science fiction?”
“Didn’t read like science fiction, more like a history book. I had to read ‘Alas, Babylon’ for English last summer and it got me to thinking but this one … wow. It makes it all seem possible. And then all this stuff going on in the world with all them countries – including ours – beating their chests like a bunch of monkies trying to figure out who’s top banana? That book talks about almost that exact thing happening.”
He chewed his lip a moment then asked, “What did you think about it?”
“That it is probably realer than a lot of people want to believe. Wish I could …” I fell silent.
“Wish you could what? Pretend like all the bad things are going to go away?”
“No sir, ain’t never gonna happen. Bad things happen all the time and there’s no changing that. Just … if I could … I wish I could have me a place sorta like that guy in the story did. It wouldn’t be anything fancy like his – no compound or gates or leventy dozen solar panels – just a place I could go when I don’t have any other place I can go. If that makes sense I mean.”
“It’s called a bolt hole.”
And that’s when Mr. Harkins started to teach me about being a survivalist. Only he said not to ever call it that because “the government has ears” and it was one of the watch words that could get the government over interested in a person in a bad way. When I asked him then what I was supposed to call it he answered, “Don’t call it anything, just do it.”
That was Mr. Harkins’ philosophy of life to a T. He didn’t have a whole lot of respect for people that did more talking than doing. His son Ronnie was like that, always planning or talking about what he was going to do … but he never really seemed to do anything but have his hand stuck up under some hood or other … and that wasn’t just vehicles either; he spent more than a goodly amount of time with the girls if you catch my meaning.
Me? I decided that Mr. Harkins was right; I was living on borrowed time and sitting around wishing I had a place, or even planning to get me one, was never going to make it come true. Life had taught me more than once that it was no fairy tale. And that’s when I come upon the idea of using Daddy’s old hunting camp. We used to go up there all the time when my folks were still around. It was about the only vacation we ever got because between me, the twins Robert Lee and Jeff Davis, and then my two little sisters Lulu and Lurlene there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of money to go around.
And the camp always made me feel closer to them all when I was there too. I don’t like to talk about it but I guess to get folks to understand I’ll mention it just this once. Isn’t it awful that the only reason I’m alive is because I was in the bathroom? We’d stopped at the gas station because the twins had eaten something that didn’t agree with them. Daddy said we needed gas anyway. At the last second my insides gave a watery chuckle and I knew I had to go to the bathroom too. I was in the stall when I heard the crash and barely got out of the facilities with my shorts in place. Some guy driving an RV had had a heart attack and plowed into our van and into the pumps we were parked by and then into the car on the other side of the pumps and just kept going until what was left of the RV wound up in the dumpster off to the side of the Quickie Mart.
I don’t talk about the rest of it and I won’t write about it either. Some things are too private to share. What is done is done and the only satisfaction I have is knowing that it was quick, they all went together, and they are waiting up in Heaven for me when it is my time. But it was a lot of lonely time for a long time. Lee Ward was one bright spot in all the dark but rancid Sister Jacob ruined what might have been if there’d been enough time and afterwards no one else would take a chance on befriending me. So I kept to myself and it suited me fine … or so I kept telling myself so many times I started to believe it more often than not.
But the hunting camp has always had happy memories for me so the idea of living there wasn’t scary or anything like that and it was a natural location for my own personal “bolt hole.”
I think Mr. Harkins enjoyed testing me and teaching me to see if I understood what it meant to be able to get along in this world, be self-sufficient, regardless of the circumstances. Lord knows he didn’t have anyone else in his family to talk to about it. Ronnie was too wrapped up in his own future plans and Mrs. Harkins … she just didn’t get it. She could fathom a time when there might not be money to go to the grocery store with … but not a time when there might not be no grocery stores. She sometimes made fun of Mr. Harkins and poked jabs at his “little hobby” that “wasted good money.” He laughed with her and would say, “Aw, I gave that up a long time ago and you know it. Stop razzing me already.” But then he’d turn to me after she’d left and raise an eyebrow and say, “Sometimes you do things for your family for their own good whether they know it or understand it or not.”
Then came the volcano that blew that they said triggered the big earthquake out on the west coast. And after the earthquake the tsunami that made a mess far out into the Pacific. Man that was bad.
Mr. Harkins started to get itchy. He was worried about the economy mostly and with good reason. Things were getting grim. They predicted the ash was going to hurt the green belt of the Midwest where most of the grains were grown and the plains where the cattle was kept. Folks out there had already suffered through a series of droughts that created another dust bowl. The year was supposed to be the first good one in a long time and then everyone had to give up that dream.
That sent groceries sky high, higher than they already were; and just about everything else too. People stopped paying the rent on their storage lockers and there wasn’t anyone with money to bid on any auctions that Mr. Harkins held to get his money back. So he started to just do his own cherry-picking even though by law he wasn’t supposed to.
If he ran across something that he already had one and a spare of he’d set it aside and tell me to “just get rid of it since no one is gonna claim it.” Then he’d give me a look. That was his signal that whatever happened to that thing I was supposed to be getting rid of he didn’t want to know. In other words, keep my mouth shut and take it for my bolt hole.
I wound up with some nice stuff that way. Old tools, old cast iron cookware to go with what was already in my locker, clothes, an old sewing machine, and many more things besides. Even got some guns that way though the less said about that the better though who on earth is gonna care at this stage of the game I couldn’t guess.
Cash got scarce and Mr. Harkins still kept me on, paying me in locker rent, ammo, and a bit of coinage if he found any in the abandoned storage lockers. Suited me fine because Uncle Jerry always made me put what cash I had into the house funds and I had to account for where it went with receipts and such. The only time he never talked me crosseyed over a purchase is when I told him it was for my feminine needs. After a couple of months of that early on he cringed and told me he didn’t want to hear about it no more and just to mind that I didn’t expose the boys to too much knowledge of the female body and its needs. Like I would. To be honest though they both knew enough that I didn’t need to tell them a thing. All those stupid and embarrassing health classes we had to take at school should have given anybody with half a brain at least a few clues.
And that’s how I got supplies for my bolt hole. The problem was it was next to impossible to move anything from the storage locker to the cave. I had been taking small things – things that could be hidden in my school back pack or lunch box – that I could then transport to the cave on my days off or on Sunday afternoon when Uncle Jerry wanted the boys and I to get scarce so he could “Bible Study” and pray over some problems with Sister Jacob. Uh huh. I’m sure that’s what they were doing.
Then about four months after the quake Mr. Harkins told me, “If you got your place you need to be moving your stuff.”
I told him, “I would if I had a way to get it there.”
“So you do got you a place.”
“I do,” I told him, being careful as he was about his not to reveal its location.
He gave me a look and then rubbed his chin a moment or two before reluctantly saying, “Ronnie bought him a new truck … though why he would do something like that without asking me first I don’t know … and my old truck is just sitting there rusting. I won’t help you and you’ll need to find a way to come up with gas, but should you get the hankering to move things I don’t mind none if you borrow it … just so long as you bring it back and don’t ding it up none.” After a moment he thought to ask, “You do have your license don’t you?”
“Yes sir. I took driver’s ed so that I could do the grocery shopping without having to drag Uncle Jerry or Josh Daniel along. If possible they’re worse than you are about that sort of thing.”
He snorted but didn’t object to my view. He hated shopping with a passion unless it was the online kind. Now auctions he liked, yard sales too, but he said more often than not he got better junk from abandoned lockers. So using Mr. Harkins’ truck was how I moved all of my stuff from the locker to the cave.
Two weeks after we were all shocked and found out the rains weren’t going to stop until those monsters on the other side of the world decided they were tired of playing godlets with the weather I came to work only to find the place dark and empty. Cautiously I walked in the unlocked door being careful to use my shirt sleeves to open it with. My first thought was that there’d been a robbery and I worried that I’d find someone laying in a pool of blood like on a TV show. Instead, in the office, I found an envelope with my name on it stuck to the bulletin board.
“Kid, it is time for me and mine to do what I you told it would one day be time to do. In leiu of a last paycheck here are the keys to the truck. It’s gassed up and left where I always keet it. Broke into a couple of the last past due lockers and found a gold mine. You’ll know what I mean when you see what is in the bed of the truck. I know you got family that you worry after but one day you are going to have to fish or cut line and you are the only one that can make that choice of when. You take care and stay above 4000 feet or so and you should be fine … hopefully.”
That was all there was. Flummoxed more than I wanted to admit I calmly walked out to the garage and went to the truck. Sure enough he had indeed filled both tanks full. I untied the tarp and looked under it and if I’d had dentures I would have surely swallowed them. There were six five gallon gas cans back there that were full and two thirty-pound propane cylinders that normally sat in the salvage yard. This is also when I came to be the proud owner of the #10 cans.
In the front seat of the truck was another note, as brief as the other one: “The Mrs. is packing the whole dang house and we ran out of room in the trailers. Reckon you won’t let this stuff go to waste … better not anyway. You behave Kid and I think we might just be seeing each other on the other side of the Pearly Gates after all.”
The last sentence meant more to me than anything else he could have done for me. See, while he talked to me about being able to live on my own I’d talked to him about God. Seems like we both came away with something.