Steve Straeder walked down the center of the road while his dog, creatively named “Dog” ran ahead and snuffled in the bushes beside the road.
Dog was of indeterminate parentage and weighed about sixty pounds. He was short-haired and his muzzle suggested a Boxer somewhere in his muddled ancestry. Like his master, Dog carried a pack. Neither partner was allowed a free ride.
Steve traded the small items that would have normally been found on the end-caps at Walmart. Needles, thread, thimbles, fish hooks, teething lotion, dried herbs, blades for utility knives...the list of items he was willing to carry was almost endless. The one characteristic they shared was high value for their weight and bulk.
Another characteristic they shared was that one-hundred of them were of little more value to the average homesteader than one of them. Unlike a hundred ounces of gold, one-hundred utility knife blades were hardly worth stealing because turning them into cash was too much work. Too much work for anybody except for Steve.
Steve's pack was a large laundry hamper lashed to a backpack frame. He briefly tried various fabric packs but nothing beat the laundry hamper for functional durability. That, and he could unload it much more quickly than he could unload a stuff-sack bag.
Among Steve’s skills was the ability to whistle both loudly and fluently. He bet early on that he could create a network of customers who would ask for “The Whistling Peddler”. He had been finessing his route. It had to be small enough that he visited frequently and that customers would wait for him. It had to be large enough that goods that were common at one end would be rare at the far end. Steve would never figure the territory out completely because it was always changing, but he derived great entertainment at playing with his “territory”.
Steve invariably looped in a generous pickle shape. The long axis of the pickle ran east-west and the return route was often a mere three miles north or south of the outbound leg. That way, he was able to use intelligence gained on the outbound leg to his advantage on the way back.
Steve was not the only young man to take to the open road. Some pushed carts. Some sharpened knives or claimed to do “gunsmithing” or dentistry. Having watched a few of the dentists, Steve quadrupled his supply of teething lotion, a concoction of Vicodin dissolved in grain spirits. He always sold out.
Dog paid his way by protecting the trading stock, finding the occasional young, unwary rabbit for the stew pot and by carrying goods. Dog was also good for business. He liked children and graciously let them crawl over him and pull his ears. Steve halfway suspected that Dog ate better at some of the farmhouses he visited than he did. Steve was not wrong.
Steve carried a .22 handgun. Word of feral dog and hog packs had him thinking about upgrading, but for now the .22 met all of his needs. He could pick a squirrel off a branch, forty feet up or pop a bullfrog in the head from ten paces. He carried it in a drop holster on his right thigh where it was within ready reach.
Steve quickly came up with a system for figuring out which homes were worth visiting. His best clue so far was a line of clothing, drying in the sun. A family that had the wherewithal and desire to care for their clothes were able to afford the tools to do so and a few luxuries besides.
After making a few sales, the matron of the house usually asked “What direction are you heading?” More often than not, he was asked if he minded returning a pan or dropping off a few iris plants or some other such errand. Life was busy and it was hard for a family to fit all the pieces in.
Steve always cheerfully agreed to attend to such errands, provided they were in his general direction of travel, the item was not obnoxiously heavy and the distance was not obscene. Few things guaranteed a warm welcome better than a stranger returning a prized tool or other cherished item.
It was rare that he traveled more than six miles in one day. Given the grind of everyday life, few people regularly made trips of more than three miles. Even those "short trips" ate up two full hours. One hour to walk out. Another hour to walk back. There was just not enough time in the day.
One of the biggest hazards to the itinerant peddler in the post-Ebola world was not feral dogs or hogs or highwaymen. Nope. It was romantic entanglements.
For a complex set of biological and social reasons, the mortality among men of marriageable age and women of the same age was much, much higher for the men.
When combined with the brutally physical life in the grid-down world, it left an extreme shortage of available men.
To the widows and un-manned women along Steve's route, Steve looked very "available", if only for the night. Some of the women were oblique in communicating their desire for company while others were more direct.
That Steve avoided such entanglements, unlike most of his former competitors, did not speak so much of his high moral standards but to his conceit that he was a judge of "fine women". The women along his route all fell short of his standard.
Steve fancied himself a connoisseur of high-class women. This is a conceit shared by all men but was taken to the extreme in Steve's case.
Steve KNEW that a high-class woman was petite and of taut musculature. While many men fixate on bosoms, Steve found them a distraction unworthy of attention.
Some women sashay. Steve demanded women who bounced on the balls of their feet, in perpetual "pounce" mode.
Steve's came by his preferences honestly. His first true-love had been both a dancer and a gymnast. They met at the high school play. Steve constructed scenery and had a crush on the female lead. Later, Steve confided that he felt she was way out of his league. She replied loftily, "That is not for you to decide." It had been a epic relationship.
Much to Steve's surprise, there were still many who had not gotten the memo: Things had changed.
He passed countless houses that clearly had residents. There was no garden. There was nobody outside collecting sticks for firewood or tending to livestock. There were no paths beaten by feet leading to the river or road or berry patch. Whoever lived in the house was still waiting to be rescued, living off food somebody had the foresight to store. Living off food and waiting for somebody else to save them.
Steve's vision of the ideal woman was one who grabbed the world-of-today by the short and curly ones and slammed it to the mat...not passively waiting for the return of the world that had been and clearly was not about to return anytime soon.
Steve was polite. Steve was professional. The women sighed. They sighed and purchased his goods. There was never even the tiniest whisper that Steve dallied with the many women who were more than willing and there was never any resentment from the men who felt very protective toward the women of their tribe.