Rainwater squeezed out of his old soiled high top tennis shoe as he placed a foot ahead on the pavement into yet another dip where standing water flowed past flayed and worn seams. He had given up long ago any effort to quickly lift the foot out to shake it dry, as there was always another puddle lying in wait.
Besides, every time he shook the water free, the loose flap of rubber sole worked its way worse, threatening to be lost. He knew, but didn’t care, both his feet were wrinkled white, tender and washed clean in their constant exposure, their only protection given by soggy white cotton socks he had picked up only days before while scavenging through some local Salvation Army that was housed in a musty old warehouse.
Unlike his socks which were used, but new, his pants, durable denim and ill fitting around his waist, were old, soiled and in need of finding permanent respite. In a sense, the storm was good in that the rain and wind were cleansing the tattered jeans, hopefully washing away some of the all too evident stains.
Off in the distance he saw headlights approaching, shifting and shimmering, dancing behind a glistening veil of rain. Briefly looking over his own shoulder, he glanced behind to see if there were a pair approaching his way. There were none, and as the oncoming car sped by him sending up sprays of water, he paid no attention.
Overhead, the late evening moon was well hid by a thick blanket of swirling moving clouds in agitated motion. Every once and a while a low rumble signaled a lighting flash which led to a quick shudder and the man clutched his old field jacket in a feeble attempt to pull it snug around his throat.
A car swept past him kicking up a sheet of water which couldn’t add to the moisture content of the man if it had tried, resulting in only some vague curse about idiots.
His attention was caught again by the fluid motion of headlights. This time traveling from his right to left, looking as if they were airborne, making cause for a shallow feeling of thanks which swept over him in that at least under the overpass, there would be some form of shelter. Then again, by the time he reached the pilings, it’d probably quit raining and the second he walked a mile past, the punishment would start again.
He didn’t like these kind of decisions, to stay and wait under the bridge or move on, didn’t like to make any kind of decision and it bothered him to have to make even such a simple one. Always seemed to him, that no matter what decision he made, it had been wrong, wrong in that somebody seemed to have to pay, and mostly, it was him.
And he was tired, beat, wore out and frustrated at having to pay.
They came quietly to their door, long faces wearing pages of sorrow hid dutifully behind a careful rapid knock on the cheap apartment door. Unusual for him, he peered through the little brass peephole as if once he had seen their faces, they might go away. But they did not, and he knew then that as they shuffled outside his home with downward glances that something was wrong. Much more wrong then what he wanted to hear and he hoped they would not be there when he opened the door.
Reading the eyes of all three, he was only faintly aware his wife had come to stand beside him, both her arms latched on to one of his.
What was it he had seen in their eyes and in their demeanor? A look of sorrow, but not for him. He knew, knew that that look was for his son and even his wife, but not for him as they leaped out questions, not for his wife, but for him. Each question was filled with that sorrow but there was something else there behind their words. A shade of.. accusations. A warning that they knew the truth and he was deceitful, a liar and would be treated as such.
And then it came, their admission that they had found their son. Frail and small, curled in a fetal position with jacket pulled up over his head which was placed oh so delicately on his school bag which he had used to pack his favorite toys and clothing.
She beat his chest with closed hard fists, yelling the worst obscenities she could find, screaming so the neighbors across the hall cracked their doors to see her sobbing, and still pounding the chest of her husband while his hands were locked in cold forged steel behind his back.
He wanted to cry but possessed nothing but emptiness as his mind wandered from the reality it had grown accustomed to living in. Guilt and shame existed as the only comfort he had, knowing the blame was his…but it had been, and he knew this, an accident.
Turning his head just before being escorted from his home, he looked to see another man, giving solace with a loose arm draped about her sullen shoulders, to his wife who had collapsed upon an arm of their paisley couch. The television had been off and painted dull reflections across gray glass. On the kitchen counter, an interrupted ham sandwich lay open, waiting. Down the short hallway, he heard his young daughter cry out in a familiar wail to notify all she had awoke.
He did not know but suspected this was no longer a world he would belong too and even that paled aside the death of his only son. He started, wanted to say something, to call out to his wife but he could think of nothing, no words were evident to push aside the pain and sooth his soul.
He had been right of course, no more a mile past the bridge, it had started to storm again, even worse. There wouldn’t be no turning back though. What would be the use? The minute he reached some odd shelter, it would quit raining until he left. If he would have been in a mood to laugh, he would have done so. Laugh at the stupidity which was his life as he done many times. In a sense, it was the man’s only real comfort, his only true sense of worth.
The green rectangular sign could be read now, and that served to occupy his thoughts. How many over the years had he seen like this one. Their names calling out unknown lives, reflective lettering just the same as the sign before and the one to follow. There was no difference, they all marked isolated little pockets which had little in common with the other and all they served for him was a gauge of how much further there was to go to a shelter and hopefully to lukewarm food prepared in volume.
Two hundred fifty miles he thought, comparing the distance as insignificant to the thousands he walked or rode, bought or begged.
It was all the same for the most part, but there was a difference here and he wondered about it. Wondered and questioned if this was the right thing to be doing, asking himself repeatedly if it was the smart thing to do.
And as always, no answers came.
Cold, cruel in all it implied, the door shut, leaving the man alone with only his thoughts. Behind him, the loss of his world was exemplified in a loud echoed noise of a lock being turned.
Crossing his arms for comfort, he massaged the shiver which ran through him, guessing that no amount of heat could displace the sterile isolation he felt.
Why did he feel so naked in this place? Even the mismatched colored shirt and pants, heavy material, offered no protection. Perhaps it was because his feet wore only plastic sandals to let the drab gray and scratched floor work their cold up around his ankles.
Finding a resignation that he would be here for some time, he sat on the edge of a hard plastic mat with seams stitched so strong, they could cut like paper burns, and figured his nakedness resulted from his guilt
He offered him a cigarette, commenting on the god damn storm and how nobody should have to suffer through it. The man took the smoke and didn’t bother with so much as a thank-you as he bent forward looking up through a rain dashed windshield to see a streak of lightning illuminate the clouds. With out permission he reached over, pushing the car lighter in and then slumped back into his seat, waiting for the light to pop. He was aware faintly, as he heard the rain splash across his window, of the man talking, asking, inquiring,… probing. He would shrug them all off until confident the man would leave him in silence, and this was, had been always, his answer.
Oncoming lights flashed past, highlighting the man’s ragged features, detailing a wisp of smoke as it curled. The driver turned his concentration to the road, now wary of his passenger, wishing he had never stopped.
The passenger snubbed out his cigarette and just caught a sign as it flooded by in eerie silence.
He had yelled at him once and it had been useless to do so. All kids fought. He had fought with his own brothers and often his own father had beat all of them with a large foreboding belt upon whose presence sent everybody scurrying for cover.
He had never hit his son, not like that. He had spanked him, of course. The last, he had left welts and it had been too much, as he, unable to carry the guilt of the pain he had caused his own son, resolved never to do so again.
But this time, the boy was older, ten, almost eleven and fiercely independent and had said something he should not have. Under pressure of working extra hours to meet their downpayment, under pressure of cooking a semblance of a meal and insuring homework was done, under weight of outstanding bills, the boy had spoke back.
It was not his fault, not the boys, he told his lawyer. It was his and he took blame. He had lost his temper but even in that loss, the two sharp jabs with a closed fist to an arm had left telltale marks.
What… how long had the boy remained in his room, the lawyer had asked.
He didn’t know, an hour, maybe.
And you didn’t think to check on him?
Maybe I should have… but….
But what? He thought while seated across from this man whom those who had already decried his guilt, paid to establish his innocence.
Remaining hidden, the sun still found strength to bring dimness, however shallow to this new day as it cast a long shadow to lead the man up the steep incline of the off ramp. Breaching the slope, he took in his surroundings and recognized nothing. But then, why should anything not have changed. And he questioned the reason, the driving force why he had came here, trying to find answers when he knew none existed.
The road was old, one could tell by the cracks which were plain and unattended to. Older then the highway he had left behind. That had not been here before. And as he started to walk past small, concise, and isolated stores, he felt strange, out of place, out of time as if everybody had gone forward with their lives, except him.
Nobody talked to him! Oh sure, briefly maybe, but nobody wanted to be seen talking to him as he sat at the bar, hands clasped about a cheap quarters worth of beer. They all knew him, that was a given. The papers made sure of that as did the radio station of this small town’s closest neighbor. He could set there, his back turned to them and feel the heat of their stares, hear their words hidden in deep throated whispers and it all bothered him.
He was beginning though, not to care. The day before his divorce had become final and faced with the fact he had begged, she would do less then talk to him. To her, he was worse then what all the others talked about.
Two trials he had suffered through, the last he had even started praying for a conviction, at least that way it could end. But there was no comfort, he remained accused and convicted even while the those who sat in his judgement could not decide his guilt.
It was of no consequence, he knew his guilt and he bathed in his blame as he started to find the only comfort in a world of long nights bought on by endless drinks, one continuously after the other.
He stood silently in front of the old apartment complex, now clearly in need of much repair. Hesitating, afraid maybe to find what he was looking for, he let his thoughts wander over the weathered common brick. He had designed this small complex, it had been one of his first projects and back then, he had took pride in it.
That had been a long time past. He knew and accepted this as his sight settled on the small first floor corner apartment.
Of course they’d replace the screen his boy had ripped to get through.
If he’d have to do it over again, he would have put bars over the damn window. If he had, it would have never happened.
His eyes swept over what had been a field, a corn field which had been plowed under and sat barren except for the snow which had covered it that Winter. And beyond the field, a small stand of stark trees, branches bare, waiting for the arrival of spring.
They had found him there, cold and alone. His head alighted gently on his backpack.
Across the field there existed a new, modern apartment complex, easily triple the size of his own and beyond that, the small stand of trees had given way to the city limits which had encroached.
He closed his eyes and let his mind wash in the memories of touch and sound and finally, after so many years, his eyes welled up, unable to hold back the tears.
He stood on the old highway, his belongings, rather that which they all had been reduced to, with an arm outstretched in a vain attempt to beg passage with one of the passing automobiles. He had no idea where he was going or much less why. Only a feeling of loss and guilt existed, a sense that nothing remained here worth staying for.
Maybe, somewhere, someplace.