This alternate history is by Ethan Robinson.
Success. I’m trying to do good at carpentry. I got certificates from JobCorps, I graduated high school. I found $2700 on the floor–at the casino–and I got my license, my truck, I just gotta register it. I got my business plan, my references, my resume, in a book like this one [taps notes binder]. But I’m homeless, and that makes it harder. I got no mailing address.
Could you maybe ask someone you trust if you could use their mailing address?
I thought of that, but I don’t like owing people things. I don’t like asking people to do things for me.
Do you do things for other people if they need it though?
If anybody down here, if they ask for change, anything in my pocket, it’s theirs. But I don’t like it when it’s like … collateral, like, Oh, I did something for you, now you owe me.
C put a lot of the $2700 into his under-the-table carpentry business. He did all right, sometimes, but worried that the government might notice he was doing business without legal permission and take it all away. He couldn’t open a bank account without an address so they probably wouldn’t be able to find everything, but he worried. And it made him uncomfortable in other ways too. How is fixing a door so someone will pay you for it different from any other kind of obligation? Why take money today from someone who’ll probably need it tomorrow? He started to wish he could just live out in the wilderness, where there would be no debts. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. After all, he basically knew how to build a house.
One morning while it was still dark he took the 58 bus to Mineral Spring and lugged his tools to Peter Randall Park, which he chose because it seemed like no one ever went there. He was about to try to cut down a tree when he looked up and saw a family of roosting turkeys looking down at him. This was the birds’ home, and he realized there was a lot he’d have to learn to live in it. That, and he’d heard that wild turkey claws are razor sharp.
He hid his tools, went back to Providence, and asked around. Soon he found L, who seemed to know what she was talking about. When she went to see the park she laughed and said it was hardly wilderness, pointing out how from almost everywhere inside it you could see someone’s backyard fence. But they started planning. Like C, I don’t know how to live in the woods, so I can’t say what they planned. I’d have to find someone like L to tell me.
Problems kept cropping up. C could build the structure, but he didn’t know anything about the systems that make a house livable. Many times they had to go back to the city to find people who knew plumbing, or heating, or old-fashioned things like how to regulate air flow to keep temperatures down in summer. Eventually over twenty people were working on the house, which kept getting bigger and bigger because almost all of them wanted to live there. When they cut down trees they tried to pick ones with winter moth damage, burning the branches and hoping they were killing the larvae, not spreading them.
Meanwhile people were abandoning the suburbs. Even though a lot of trees were struggling with winter moths and the new harsher seasons and unreliable rainfall and stronger winds, forest was taking back the yards whose fences L had laughed about. By the time the house was ready, the thirty-one of them (some younger than the project) were really on their own, depending only on each other and the trees and the edible wild plants L knew about and the water and the turkeys (who they occasionally ate) and all the other parts of their ecosystem, so complex they couldn’t understand it fully, so unstable they had to keep finding new accommodations with it. Things were hard, but there was happiness too.
C lived, and the day he died the nineteen humans of the community sat up late around the fire talking about him. Most didn’t remember, or had never known, that C had started the whole thing, and those who did kept it to themselves because they felt he would have wanted them to. H, the plumber, now very old, sat quietly thinking about how different her life might have been if she hadn’t lost all that cash the year before she met C. She’d had big plans for that $2700 and losing it had seemed–no, had been–catastrophic. It had left her needing something to latch on to. She stared into the fire and as the larvae burned she lost herself in awe at how one thing can lead to another, at how every breath depends on the one before it, the ones around it.