Cleaning up after our meal took a little more work, and considering our lack of conversation, we made a pretty good team. We rinsed off the dishes from lunch, as well as the ones from last night’s dinner. He pulled a trash bag from the toolbox for the fish remnants and bones, plus the apple cores, and I even remembered the orange peels and candy wrapper from my backpack. He extinguished the fire and I cleaned off the back of his truck. It made me smile how that worked out.
As we finished, he looked up the road towards his wood work. I was going to get a book out of my tent, but when I remembered his work remained to be finished, I thought I ought to help.
“Hey,” he stopped and turned back to look at me.
“Do you have an extra pair of work gloves?”
“Yes.” In the future, if I need anything, I should look in the toolbox, because in addition to most every item we used that day, he reached in and found an extra pair. They were clearly too large for me, but if he was going to spend the rest of the day chopping wood, I wanted to help.
“Let’s take the truck.”
“I don’t mind walking.”
“You can if you want, but if you’re coming along and lending a hand, it might be better for you to load the firewood in the trailer.” That made a lot more sense. I followed his lead and climbed in the cab. He moved the cooler and bag of food to the bed of the truck before getting in and starting the engine.
The drive was short, but I decided I should try to end my self-imposed silence. “May I ask you a question?”
No response meant yes.
“What do you do with all the firewood? Twelve cords is a lot.”
If I said nothing, I’d hope he’d answer eventually. I wondered if he was selling it and didn’t want to tell me.
“There is a place north of town. They take donations of firewood and distribute it to families who have a demonstrated need.”
“You give it to the poor?” I knew he wouldn’t answer because he already provided an explanation. “Why?”
“Because they need it.”
“Yes, but why do you spend so much time out here, by yourself, chopping wood? Besides that it is a good cause.”
“It is a good cause.”
“Agreed. But why not just buy it and donate it? You do it yourself for a reason.”
He drove past his work site, turned the vehicle around where he found room enough, and pulled up so the trailer was closest to the waiting wood and the truck was facing back towards camp.
He turned off the engine, but didn’t get out of the truck. “I like being out here. I like being alone. I like the feel of the axe in my hand and how it exposes the inside of the wood’s flesh.”
“What else?” I developed a hunch there was something more, and maybe I was wrong, but if I was, wouldn’t he just talk as he went about his business, not sit here in the truck as if he was contemplating something. I recognized that look in his silence. I’d seen it in the bathroom mirror.
“Payback. Something I owe.”
I could have left it at that, but he’d already exposed that he held deeper reasons. “To whom?”
“To people who are lacking something in their lives. To the families who don’t have someone to chop it for them.”
He paused “Yes.” He looked at me finally. “How did you know?”
“The VA hospital is on the north side of town. I took a guess.”
“Did you know I’m a vet?”
“Yes.” I hoped he didn’t hold it against me that I heard about him from a stranger. “So how about we work together on this? I could use some giving-back time and maybe some good karma.”
He got out of the truck and said nothing. I took it as another yes.