A PATH IN THE WOODS
Pepe was almost always with a smile, a friendly hello, an ever present cigarette between his dirty and stained fingers with a beer in an insulated styrofoam jacket in his other hand, sitting on his swinging chaise lounge near his tents. Sitting firmly on his head was his felt western style hat, the brim curved above his ears with Spanish moss running around the raised brim, a small stuffed snoopy dog sitting on top with an American Flag on one side with a peace sign painted over it and a Hooter’s emblem on the front. Under the hat, a long brown pony tail, dark skin, Native American high cheek bones, broad strong nose, wise cracking language that kept whoever was around smiling and joining in.
After being introduced to Pepe at his squatters camp, I walked over to the creek that passed ten feet from his tent. I knew the creek; it was the Sweetwater Branch that ran lazily through town picking up pollutants along the way as it meandered out to Paynes Prairie loosing itself in a sink hole.
“Hey Pepe, how come you have three tents?”
As he pointed, Pepe said he slept in one tent and had two others for supplies. When I casually asked what supplies he kept he looked at me like a flash of lightening with dark staring eyes, turned away without answering. He didn’t say another word to me, or look at me again that visit. When we came out the following week, passing out food to the homeless, he didn’t acknowledge me, even when I said “hey, Pepe, how you doin?” Some of the others from the HomeVan, our volunteer cadre, said I should be patient, he’ll come around.
Okay, it wasn’t my business what he had in the tents. I wasn’t prying just being curious friendly. He kept things that way for the next few visits to his camp. I felt lousy standing there with two or three others who were always talking and laughing together with him. I noticed right off that Pepe preferred talking with Lucille who was a thirty something graduate student at the university where I was a math professor.
I tried to be present, but standing in his camp I felt envious of his rebel way of life. It took me a while to admit it to myself, but it was true. My kids were grown, I lived alone in a small apartment, and there wasn’t much that interested me in our culture anymore. I lived in it for years mostly because of my kids, was an involved parent, but now I wasn’t sure. I had a good enough life, work wise, income, but something was missing for me to get involved helping those at the bottom of the social ladder. Listening to Pepe getting along with Lucille and Ken who was also a student, I felt out of a loop. Pepe was my age, late 50s, been living in the woods for a decade or two is what I heard about him. He seemed content. Unlike many, he didn’t have to panhandle; some kind of military pension gave him freedom to do what he wanted, which was mostly smoking and drinking beer.
One week when the others went off in another direction to bring the food to camps further in the woods I was left to bring Pepe his food. It really wasn’t much we brought out to them but they appreciated it: A sandwich, apple, banana, bottled water, snack, whatever donated food we had that week. As I walked on the path to his camp I called his name, then yelled out, “HomeVan coming in,” as we usually did when we approached any of the campsites. Walking in alone, old fears of the woods swelled up in me; it was dusk, the sun back near the end of the day spreading moving shadows through the trees. I admitted this was all new to me, the woods, those I was meeting, doing this sacred work. I saw Pepe’a camp, the tent flap closed, the swinging lounge seat with him not in it. In my six weeks going out, he was always sitting there at this time, waiting. I slowed my walk as I got closer, “Pepe, you around?” I wasn’t sure what to do with the bag of food, not having been told anything about leaving them if no one’s around.
Then a freak out, as I felt a hand on my shoulder, “hey you, boo!” I dropped the bag, reflexively swung my other arm around at the hand on my shoulder, which was easily grabbed in Pepe’s iron grasp, as he slowly, almost too slowly, brought me to the ground. “Got you now doctor.”
I looked up at him, knowing he could have killed me if he wanted, but there was no reason to kill me as there was no reason to freak me out or put me down on the ground.
“What the hell. What was that for?” I looked up at his broad brown toothed smile. “Just wanted to scare you doctor.”
“I’m not a doctor. A professor, I’m a professor of math.”
“Good at figures, huh, I bet you’d like to work with that Lucille, she has a nice figure.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen the way you like spending time with her when we drop off your food. She’s a little young for us.”
“Well, doctor, maybe too young for you, but I still got my Seminole juices flowing in me. You want a beer?”
Not once since I began this volunteer work did any one offer a beer. In most of the camps there was a lot of drinking going on. It was part of their culture, well, shoot, it was a part of the whole culture.
“Sure, if you got a spare one. I may not have much time if the others finish dropping off bags up the hill.”
“I wouldn’t offer you one if I didn’t have one for you. You got time, I hear there’s a bunch of them moving in, setting up camps, further back up that trail. They won’t be back for ten fifteen minutes. You got time, relax.”
He handed me the beer, “thanks. Seminole, you’re native ?”
“No Scottish,” as he popped the lid on his, smiling.
“Grow up on a reservation?”
“You still want to know what’s in my storage tent?”
“Hey Pepe, I didn’t mean anything by that. If you want an apology you got it. Just curious.”
“You know what happened to the cat?”
“Cat, what cat?”
“The curious cat, George.”
“Yeah, like George. I used to read it to my kids.” I sipped the beer and walked over to the creek, enjoying looking at the running water. “I like your camp Pepe, being close to the creek. Reminds me of some place I must have been but can’t remember. It feels relaxed here.”
“Not in the winter. It’s Florida, but in the winter it gets cold out here.”
“Yeah, I know, I’ve been here for years. How long you been here?
“Here, a few years. Been in the woods for close to twenty.”
I sipped my beer, with the thought of living in the woods. “I don’t think I could do this.”
“I think I hear them coming down the hill. Thanks for the beer.” I took some long swallows finishing it off. “I’ll return the favor.”
“Yeah, come out and bring some with you. You’re okay doctor.”
Odd having a conversation with a Seminole. It was the first time in my life I had spoken to a Native American. An odd way to go, living out here in the woods, but choosing not to be close to the twenty or thirty homeless men and women back up the hill. They had homes though, just not like most of the rest of us. Homes without solid walls, but maybe better off. No bills, no car, no fuel needs, no electricity, no phone calls to make or receive. I also knew it wasn’t easy, with little money, scrambling for food, no good hygiene, weather to deal with, walking or biking most places. I wondered what it was in my nature that made me think this was a better way. Something primal I hadn’t explored.
The next couple of weeks I didn’t go out with the HomeVan having something to do on those nights, but a Saturday afternoon, with nothing to do I went to the convenience store near the woods by Sweetwater camp to get a six pack to bring to Pepe. There he was standing by a bicycle outside the store with a 12 pack under one arm and a carton of cheap cigarettes under the other.
“Hey doctor,” he spoke first.
“Hey Pepe, you beat me to the brew, I was comin to see ya.”
“That’s cool, get you some and follow me out. I’m on my bike.”
“Start going,” I told him, “I’ll meet you on your path. Hey, throw the beer in the back of the truck, or hell, put the bike back there, I’ll drive you.” He waved me off, putting the 12 pack with the carton in bike basket, peddling off with a raised hand, finger pointing in the direction of the camp.
As he bicycled away I asked myself again what I was doing choosing to associate with an alcoholic, homeless, Native American. I knew though: it was everything about who he was that fascinated me, something inside, deep down, wanted to know more about the life style of those really on the edge. It wasn’t curiosity, not voyeurism. I began volunteering helping feed the homeless after reading about their plight for years. I had time. My kids were on their own, no girl friend, so what is life all about if not giving and helping others? It wasn’t the way I was raised, but it was the way I adopted for my life. Reading many spiritual books about compassion made changes in me since those childhood teachings that espoused taking care of yourself and your own.
Over the years I had lost the boundaries between my own and everyone else. It seemed to make sense that we were all one and this guy, Pepe, a Seminole had come into my life. I wasn’t necessarily a bleeding heart liberal, a math professor for 25 years, my life was mostly into books and numbers, academia, students, but along life’s road, my thinking changed, broadened. I cared about the Native American and what’s been done to them. Other than those obvious reasons there was something else happening inside of me, something moving me beyond me. As I passed Pepe a few blocks from the thick wooded area where the homeless camps were, I beeped my horn, he waved and a few minutes later he pulled his bike next to my pick up.
“You got a 12 pack Pepe, me a six, that should be enough for a couple of sittings.”
“It’s my daily supply,” he said, “been doing this for oh, damn, I don’t know how long, since I got out of the Army, in 69.”
“That’s almost 35 years, you must be pretty well pickled. You should have opened your own brewery, could have saved some money.”
I was happy he didn’t take my remark as a putdown. You’re right man, you’re educated, a math man, figured them years real quick. You know about us redmen. We drink. I can’t stop the drinking, smoking, or looking after women, although for years now, living in the woods I don’t meet many.”
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“What you wanna know?” As he answered he opened two cans of beer. “Here start on this.”
“Well, I’m still curious, not about your tent, I really don’t care, but why you’ve been living this way. You’re smart, strong, but choosing this as a path.”
“Yeah a path, my path, away from the white world, as much as I can. And away from my own tradition too. I’m sad about that. I like people, love people really, but something about the way the world is wasn’t what I wanted. I knew it doctor, as soon as I got out of Nam, but I did the white man’s thing anyway, trying to fit in, as part of society, job, married, kids, car, house, the whole deal, but when my wife got into drugs, took my kids, man, I didn’t want any more of it.”
“Your kids; you see them?”
“Haven’t in years. Don’t know where they are. It hurts, I loved them, but she disappeared and I was too drunk to even begin looking for them.”
“I’m sorry. It’s a big loss in life.”
“Yeah. You’re right, it’s not our way.” He was silent as he dragged on another cigarette, opened another beer, while I still nursed mine. “You ready for another one?”
“No, I’m cool.”
“Hey, doctor, let me ask you something. I got this bump in my throat, on the side here that keeps hurting, Gettin a little bigger. Whad ya think?”
I moved closer to look at it. “Yeah, I see the little protrusion. How long has it been there?” I touched it lightly and he pulled away fast. “Hurts so easily.”
“Yeah it does. Don’t know, a couple of months I guess, maybe three, four. One morning I spit up some blood. Maybe two mornings. Sometimes I can’t swallow so good.”
“That no good.”
“No shit. What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. Don’t forget: math, not medicine. Swollen glands, infection, maybe.” I hesitated, “maybe cancer. You know, smoking, drinking, anything can happen.”
“Yeah I know.”
“Go to a clinic man, you have VA benefits. Get it tested.”
“Hell no. Not the VA. Maybe a horse doctor like used to see us on the rez.”
“They don’t do woods visits anymore.”
“No shit man, thanks for telling me.”
That was the first time he mentioned the bump to anyone, but over the next six months it continued to get larger, making it more and more difficult for Pepe to swallow solid food. We began to bring him cans of nutritional supplements to drink.
“Yeah, I like that stuff, keep on bringing it,” he assured us, but I never saw one in his hand, only beer, and never saw any empty cans in his trash pile, next to his tent.
He was getting thinner fast, weak too, spending more time in his tent, sometimes not even coming out to see us when we’d drop off the supplement and a gallon of filtered water.
“Pepe, I yelled as I walked into camp, “Sh’mal and Pat. HomeVan coming in.” No answer. Pat yelled, “hey Pepe,” then, only a faint, “come on along, I’m here.”
“What’s up good buddy,” I asked, peering through the mildewed window screen of his tent? Pat knelt beside me as we watched him turn out of his sleeping bag, reminding us both of those pictures of the starving. Pat called in, “hey Pepe, it’s Pat how you doin?” Pat knew him for years.
“Hey Pat. I haven’t been out of the tent for two days.” His voice by now was almost gone due I suspected to the growing tumor, pressing on his vocal cords. There was a lot of gurgling, mucous in his voice. I knelled close to the screen to hear him.
“Pepe, maybe it’s getting time to go into the emergency room.”
“Yeah, come back on Saturday.”
“Saturday,” I questioned?
“That’s in two days right?”
I was surprised he knew the day. “Sure Pepe, Saturday, 10:00 in the morning. I’ll be here, maybe with some one else.”
He only said “good, see ya Saturday,” way unable to be his old self.
The HomeVan regulars talked often about Pepe’s condition and what we should do. Since he was aware of his situation, had told us many times he didn’t like hospitals, didn’t like medical intervention in his life, we backed away, but recently, we all felt morally compelled to offer him something. On the other hand we also talked about him maybe wanting to die right where he was. He said that more then once. I was surprised how easily he agreed to go.
I came out Saturday by myself, others were on another call from some one needing services. As I walked to his camp I smelled smoke, a small fire come into view near his tent. “Pepe, Sh’mal here, coming in.”
There was no answer, but I saw him sitting on the ground near the fire. He looked up, waved for me to come.
“What’s going on Pepe?”
He motioned with his hand for me to sit by the fire. I sat only a couple of feet from him to be able to hear him better. He had a small stack of kindling near the fire. I never saw him with a fire before. I knew it wasn’t for cooking. He had placed small rocks around the pit, a beer next to him, pack of cigarettes on the ground by his knee. A sweet smell hung in the air around the fire.
“You’re doing some kind of ritual.” He nodded.
In his cracked gurgling voice he told me he hadn’t done these rituals for a thousand years.
“A thousand years,” I asked smiling?
He smiled back, shrugged. “I remember, when I was a kid, ten or so, my grandfather before he died sitting by a fire chanting, saying prayers, asking that he be welcome into the land of the grandparents. It was all in Indian language I only understood a little. After he joined the ancestors, a few days later, my father translated.” He stopped, sipped, swallowed, breathed in gurgling, looked into the fire, recalling more.
“I never knew how to be a good scout, everything of the white man’s culture took me in. You know,” he looked right into my eyes, “it was all inviting. Alluring.”
“Alluring. I use that word too.”
“Yeah, you know man, it sucked me in and sucked me dry of my culture. Living in the woods, here, other places too, was the only thing I could finally do to get back to where my ancestors were.” He took a drag, coughed, gurgled, took a sip of beer. My people lived near here, Micanopy, he was the chief, Payne, another chief. I read about them. Their names are still here.”
“I know, Paynes Prairie, the town of Micanopy.”
“Yeah, you know too. I’m asking my ancestors what I should do. Go to the hospital or stay right here?”
“You getting anyway answers?”
“Not yet. Have a beer. In the tent.”
I crawled to his tent, reached in and took one. Sat back close to him, rolled a cigarette. This was my ritual too. Whatever it was that had brought me to Pepe, a latent, primitive, nature, felt akin to what was going on. “It’s funny, not funny, odd Pepe, here I am a Jewish man from New Jersey sitting with you doing this. It all feels familiar though. I felt for years a close tie to your people, to the old ways.”
He nodded, smiled broadly, with the few darkened teeth from smoking, not brushing, turned back to the fire and began chanting in another language. I listened, a bit mesmerized, that he remembered something of that language. Seldom did he mentioned anything about his Native American ways, here I was though, sharing in his solemn ritual. He went on, occasionally throwing some sweet smelling leaves on the fire, picking up a few kindling sticks to keep the small fire alive. He stopped chanting, was quiet, sipping from the beer, lighting another cigarette, dropping more leaves into the fire. Me wondering where he found the leaves, what they meant, what was I supposed to do?
We kept sitting. I had time. It was his. He very slowly crawled to the tent getting himself another beer, looked over at me with another in his hand, but I shook my head no. He shrugged, crawled back to his place. “Even crawling hurts all over. My voice is going.” He let the fire dwindle down, smoldering coals simmered as he dropped in last of his leaves. “Somehow I remembered some of the old chants. I don’t know what all the words mean, but something is coming through so I’m letting it happen.”
It was quiet, except for the creek running fast and high after a recent rain, the leaves of the trees whispering in the light breeze. Like he heard my thoughts he continued, “I listen to the leaves, the creek. It runs into the Prairie. My ancestors used to hunt there, here, maybe camped right here. I think so, they come to me in my dreams, but I’m not getting any messages this morning. Yet.”
I looked at him, smiled that I understood remaining silent.
“White man’s magic,” he mumbled.
“What’s that mean?”
“The hospital, its all white man’s magic. I never understood it. You know.”
Yes, I knew that. I told him, “never for my kids or myself did I buy into that way. I learned about alternative healing and was blessed that my kids and me were free of western medicine. So, what’s next for you?”
He smiled, shrugged uncertain, picked up a stick he was using to stir the fire, now only a few coals remaining.
He sipped his beer as I rolled another of my American Spirit tobacco, thinking two already and it’s not even noon, throwing off my schedule of usually smoking only three a day.
“Only one beer left. Would you get me another 12 pack? I’ll give you money.”
“Does that mean no hospital today?”
He smiled, nodded his head affirming my question.
I stood, told him he I had money, brought back a 12 pack, sat and had another with him, smoked another cigarette and left telling him I’d see him the next day. There was no next day for Pepe, at least not on this plane. He was bent over near where I had left him by the fire, his head down to the ground, still sort of sitting. He had gathered more twigs and leaves for his small fire that was rekindled with slight coals still red. He wasn’t dead long.
I left Pepe there and drove out bringing back some of our friends from the HomeVan. I re-lit the fire from the coals with the kindling he left and put the leaves in, as we did some of our own prayers, drank the remainder of the 12 pack, used a cell phone to call the police, who came out and called a mortuary, as we waited. His hat had fallen on the ground near him. I asked the others if they thought it cool if I took it as reminder. They agreed.
At the funeral home, I told them Pepe wanted a cremation and back at his camp our small cadre spread his remains doing as sacred a ceremony as we knew.