As I stood in the doorway I thought about what the old man had said and felt the beginning gnawings of depression in the pit of my stomach. Would I end up like him, alone and old with nothing but bitterness and regrets? Once it had been difficult to think much beyond the present moment but those days were gone and now it seemed as if there were all too few moments left and an oceans worth behind me, flung carelessly in my wake like so many snowflakes tossed in a high wind. More often than I cared to admit I found myself caught up in memories of the past- reliving experiences that seemed almost like fever dreams instead of moments in a life that actually had been lived. Maybe because so much of my past had been so strange. I had always prided myself on my deviant point of view but now it was almost as if I had now become the monster that longed for humanity instead of the man who had done everything he could to become a monster, Now I found little amusement in prowling the blue highways, back streets, and alleys of experience. Instead felt like the man in Poe's poem, not the raven.
Dawn was breaking beyond the trees and with it the sound of crowing in the distant treetops- a raucus cacaphony that seemed to mock my mood and make me feel only that much worse. The aimlessness of my life was difficult to bear. It was becoming harder and harder to convince myself that there was anything to look forward to except for the same deadly solitery sameness that weighted me down and made me long for some new if not valid inspiration, some restless uncontrollable obsession that would wipe away the pointless reality of my life and replace it with some illusion of purposeful momentum.
Annoyingly enough, I knew that I would be unable to use that route to ecape from myself. I had done it too many times. After all, wasn't that what had brought me again to the highway? Wasn't that why I was where I was? Wasn't the very experience I was having the one I was seeking? It all amounted to nothing in the end and I could no longer overlook or pretend that it didn't.
The wind whipped snow and the somber sky seemed a mocking mirror to my mood but if I chose differently, would sunlight and balmy skys be any different?
The crisp taste of winter on my tongue a lungful of frozen air helped to clear my mood, and wake me from my stupour. I realized I was very cold and needed to go inside.
The stale smell of burned coal and old greeted my return. The old man was nowhere to be seen. I went to the stove. After shoveling out a few clunkers and piling them in a galvanized bucket I added some newspaper, a few sticks of kindling, and finally, more chunks of coal. There was a can of charcoal lighter on the floor next to the old mans chair and I drenched the coal with it and lit it with a stick match I found on the floor. I sat down in the chair and listened to the ticking and clacking of cold iron warming in the flames.
Where had he gone? Was he ever there to begin with or was it only another in a long history of hallucinations.That the episode had to have been real seemed supported by the fact that I was there, that the scene was just like it had been, that everything was the same except for his absence.That he had probably gone to bed was the last thing that came to mind.
I settled back in the chair . I heard music playing faintly and, through the streaked glass of the front window saw birds congregating in the dead trees. Like mournful black cloaked witnesses they settled into position as if they were waiting for a trial that was yet to happen.I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing but the sound of their cawing grew louder and louder. Stubbornly I tried to ignore it but, finally, I got up and went to the window.
Beyond the glass the somber sky pressed down against the parking lot and the trees beyond with a black and malevolant sullenness that was made worse by the birds whose numbers had increased until now the trees seemed leaved with black flapping spectres that screeched and laughed upon the branches at the world of men below. I imagined the torment of devils tossed from heaven, clustered at the door to hell, hating me because I was warm but yet knowing that I should be out there with them, a part of their torment. I felt drawn to them, so much so that I almost surrendered to their demands and walked out into the frozen dawn.
"Thinking of joining them?"
The old mans voice startled me. I heard him shuffling behind me as he approached the window. His arm reached past me and pulled the curtain closed.
"No point standing there. They'll only make you crazy" He said, as if he knew all too well what he was talking about.
I turned away from the window.
He was dressed in the same shapeless pants he had worn when I first saw him but he had changed his shirt and now wore a red and black checked woolen shirt. What they used to call a lumberjack shirt. I suddenly remembered that day so long ago that it seemed like a myth, when I first stood by the highway with my sign and my backpack, headed west in search of the one honest man. I was wearing such a shirt and to take it one better, a jacket to match, a huge heavy wool coat that was designed for sub zero weather. And me on my way to California. It was so typical of me. Always trying to prepare for the worst and instead, always finding myself totally unprepared for the reality I was experiencing. I say this because, on that day, the bearded boy I was, stood by the side of a corn field in the mid summer Iowa heat.
"What are you staring at?" He asked suspiciously.
"Your shirt." I replied.
He looked down.
"What's wrong with it? Had it since I was a kid."
"Nothing. I had one like it once." I Replied.
"Didn't everybody? In them days lumberjacks were kinda like what astronauts are now. Paul Bunyon an' all. Hell, I even had me a Davy Crockett hat!"
"I don't remember them."
"Ain't missin' much. just another hero myth. As I remember, Davy Crockett wasn't all he was made out to be. Ol' Walt Dizzy kind'a took a lot of things that weren't much an' made 'em larger than life. Not like now. Heck! Now the heros are worse than the villeins! I figure we lost sight of what a hero is. Kinds like God. God lost his ability to impress me when we brought him down to earth. It was better when he was up there, minding his or her own business. Now everybody feels being God's an equal opportunity ."
"Except we don't seem to get beyond factionalizing do we?"
"My God's better than your God."
"Oh yeah. God's been the cause of too much chaos. Be better off if all those God folks were treated like people who smoke. Assign them places to go do their smoking and places they can't go, like into my living room. Heck, I can't turn on my own TV anymore without somebody trying to sell me some kind'a snake oil gurenteed to save my soul."
He spit on the floor.
"Or at least clean my carpet." He added with a chuckle.