The old one stands on the knoll, looking out over the steel rails where the grey sullen sky disappears into the blue-green waters that lap at the shore in a rhythm of their own, driven by the relentless cold north wind.
The arrogant gulls crying “mine-mine-mine,” wing their way nowhere on that relentless wind, and the old one sits trapped in this strange place, knowing nothing, knowing no one, alone in this strange unforgiving city. The nobles who’d given him five long years to contemplate his crime sent him here and then, without even a grin or smile to show their satisfaction, had exiled him for the remainder of his life to this strange foreign land.
Two days ago, whisked to the door of the prison by the nobles, the old, one received two things one was a decree and the second a carriage (bus) ticket to some faraway place. For two days, he rode on a carriage belonging to the dog people. The carriage stopped every now and then to pick up and drop off the gregarious fellow travelers. The old one sat alone, talked to no one, all the while battered by the incessant chatter encompassing him. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t rest, all he could do was to endure the noise, the smells, and the other irritants that grated on what few nerves he had left. As the hours slowly crept by, he grew more and more exhausted. When the old one finally arrived in the cold, forbidding, place he wore a shirt, the new pants the nobles had given him and his boots. This clothing was inadequate even by minimal standards in this metropolis of the north locked in winter.
The old one began his trek to where a new noble was to over-see him during his stay in this unforgiving land. The new nobles’ interest in him was mechanical: you can do this but not that, you can go here but not there. Then, he gave the old one a map of the city with addresses to places the old one did not know. Then this noble sent him on his way, just as the nobles in the prison had done to him the days before.
The old one left the nobles’ building, made his way to a carriage stop, and waited for the next carriage. When it came, he asked the driver, where the addresses on the map were located. The carriage driver told him to climb aboard and he would take him to a place on the map. The old one rode up front near the driver, for a few minutes, before the driver stopped and pointed to a building. “That’s it old man, go there,” he said. The old one stepped down from the carriage and trudged off in the direction the carriage driver had pointed. It was the first stop of many, he would make in this inhospitable land.
The old one entered the alchemist’s shop. Here they treated the truly demented souls, but even they had no room. There, the hazel-eyed sorceress told the old one to travel “four blocks north and then four blocks east to a place called the 2100,” they could help him there.
At the 2100, the old one found a place to sleep with two meals one at night and one in the morning. Those pitiful meals were enough to keep the wolves in his stomach from fighting among themselves, but that was about all the meals did.Entering the 2100, the old one stood in line, a line of men all waiting for the same thing: a bed, a hot meal, a bathroom. Some of the beings still cared enough about themselves that they took a shower, but most just came to the 2100 to crash.
At four p.m. on the dot, the doors flew open and the line of men began to file in. the old one stood in line, cold, shivering, and watched arrogant beings who thought they were special strut their way to the front of the line, intending to enter ahead of others. However, these same tough acting beings would cry like children to keep their place in the shelter when confronted by the authorities, when ordered to leave.
The old one filled in the blanks on the paperwork and had his finger scanned to provide a fingerprint as his entry key into the 2100. The shelter assigned him bed E-44, E for Emergency Dorm and bed number 44. He followed the herd to E, and then sought out the bed he had been assigned.
His bed, a wooden bunk bed with a mattress, typical of the one hundred twelve beds lined up in rows from wall to wall, like gravestones in a cemetery. The mattresses were vinyl with a vinyl cover over every exposed surface and covered with a white powder. The old one fingered the powder, and then smelled it, insecticide, the old one decided. He shivered, realizing it was for bed bugs, lice, scabies, and mites.
God, how nasty, not even when he was in the military, the county jail, or even prison, had it been this nasty. It made the old one’s skin crawl, it began to itch, and he began to scratch.
On the mattress was a sheet freshly washed, but wadded up. The old one straightened it out and pulled the corners and edges over the mattress. He drew it tight. On the frame of the bed lay trash: old cigarettes butts, partially eaten dried up food—all covered with insecticide, he threw it in a pile at the foot of the bed. Then made a pillow out of his tote and lay down on the bed.
The old one did not close his eyes. Surreptitiously he glanced at his surroundings. In the room were beings of all colors, sizes, ages. They congregated in small groups or walked around seeking prey. Some too drunken to stand lay in the bug powder and soiled themselves, the urine puddling on the vinyl-covered mattresses. For the first time he saw cocaine snorted, crack smoked, and two beings injected something in their arms.
Finally, the old one closed his eyes, hiding behind the lids, trying to shut out what was going on around him. Yet he was aware of the punks prancing around advertising for sex. He had been in the E dorm for less than an hour.
That night a part of the old one died. He tossed and turned neither sleeping nor awake—in a semi conscious state when at last the lights came on. The old one rose from his rack. Around him men coughed, hacked, gagged, moaned, and broke wind, as they headed toward one of the two bathrooms. He pulled on his boots, put on his jacket that he had received the night before he grabbed his tote, and then wandered toward the bathroom himself.
The men he passed; their smells, the cold, his isolation, weighed heavily on the old one. His mind plummeted into an abyss. Deeper and deeper he fell, finding himself at last in the darkest, blackest, state of melancholy he had ever experienced. He knew he was lost. He could not live like this—no, not like this.
Thoughts came of his former life: the family he once had, a daughter, friends, a woman he had loved. All was gone. Relations with them would never be the same as they once had been. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The old one wondered through the halls of the 2100. He asked its nobles, if there was a counselor, a psychologist, even god forbid a minister or a priest. The response was that there was no such person here. A woman sat at the front desk. He asked her, if there was some kind of help available—any kind. In an abrasive voice, she ordered the old one to clear the hallway and to leave the building.
No one to talk to, no one to tell his thoughts to—no one, no one was there to help him. The old one was a solitary soul in a sea swimming with gregarious creatures. He felt himself more alone than at any time in his life.
“Surely death would be easier,” he thought to himself. “No more pain, no more melancholy… no more, no more, no more.” The pain showed in his every step. It hurt, hurt him to the core. “Go ahead, find the bridge. Take the plunge and feel the peace arise in your soul, feel the frigid water fill your lungs. Down, down, down to the icy bottom, the darkness, the peace. Come on, come on,” said the inner voice, “Just do it.”
The decision was made it was time for him to die. He could not live like this, like an animal. He’d thought he was strong. However, the strong of the 2100 were among the filthy, the drunks, the vile, and the addicts with whom he’d just spent the night. Those were the strong, not him.
Leaving the 2100 the old one headed for the bridge… the one he had seen from the noble’s office the previous afternoon. He walked the four blocks in silence. Then suddenly, he remembered the hazel-eyed sorceress who had talked to him the day before. The bridge was one way, the sorceress was the other, and for some unknown reason, he turned toward the alchemist’s shop. There he found the hazel-eyed sorceress.
He told her of his tale of woe. She calmed him, giving him words of comfort, and words to think on, she gave him paper, to write letters to his friends and family. She offered him the call box to talk to his daughter. This, though he declined, not wanting to worry or upset his daughter. Nevertheless, he did accept: the paper, the quill, and the envelopes.
Then the sorceress told him of the noble’s law, it is illegal she said to intentionally, end one’s own life. She threatened to summon the law; unless the old one could convince her, he would not end his life. The old one thought, how amusing that ending your own life is against the law. Then why is it so cheap and disposable everywhere in the world? The nobles throw people away every day while condemning the same act. What hypocrites!
Thinking about this, the old one died a little more; as he has done a million times before but for today, he would forget about the bridge. Maybe, some other time he would let death call to him, and then, he would visit the bridge. However, it wouldn’t be today… no not today.
The old one left the knoll. He walked back to the 2100 and with each step toward the 2100 and away from the bridge; the burden of death became less of a burden for him to carry.
At a little before 4:00 the old one arrived at the 2100. He joined the other men in long line winding down the block to the building. Just as it, he guessed, had been done a million times before. The door to the 2100 opened, admitting the homeless, the demented, the addicts, and drunks and the old one to the shelter. He waited, and when it was his turn to file in and press his finger on the key lock, he was given a new bed in E. it was not far from 44, but far enough away where he could not see what he’d seen the night before.
He found his bed, and without further adieu lay down. He didn’t take off his boots or the jacket he’d received the night before. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and sank into a listless sleep. In only a short time, he awoke to the noise of the beings as they began to file noisily from the room to dinner. He got out of his bed and followed the line to the cafeteria for their evening meal.
The trays, it was hard to believe they were exact copies of those he’d eaten off in prison, every day for the last five years. Picking it up he saw it was the same kind of food they’d served in prison… same noodles, same chicken, the same meat ripped from the bones by machine, then sold or donated to places like 2100. He couldn’t eat it. He handed the tray to the man behind him.
The old one walked, to the iron vending machines. From one he bought coffee, from another a sweet cake. The brewed coffee was hot. It was semi-sweet and light. In addition, he bought it with his own money… not money he’d earned, but money the prison nobles grudgingly had given him when he left. He had the money now it was his.
He picked up his belongings and made his way back to E… back to where the unfortunates were, back to where the thieves and liars, drunks and addicts, congregated. He found his bed, lay down, covered his face, and cried.
When the old one awoke to a new day, he trudged through the cold world, walking toward the alchemist’s Shoppe. He stopped at a covered carriage stop shed; he sat down, took out his tablet and his quill, and began to write. First, he wrote a single word, then another word, then a full line, then another line, soon words covered page after page. He watched the carriages passed by, he spoke to the pitied, as well as the nobles, and he talked with one he had befriended. Yet he was alone.
The next day came and the weekend was upon him. He awoke to another cold, rainy morning. He toweled off the night sweats that plagued his sleep, he and the friend he’d made went together to the cafeteria. There, nobles with means with homes and families had arrived to set up the food of pity: soup, bread, juice. It fueled the bodies of the pitied ones and fired up the self-esteem and egos of the nobles. Then as he had done for the last four days, at eight he made his way out the door of 2100. He and his friend began their trek through the cold drizzle to seek daytime shelter, choosing the gaping maw of the priest’s house. Once inside, they were ushered into a great hall.
In the hall, he saw two rows of fire pots hung from either side of the king’s knee trusses. Light from the firepots cast an eerie glow on all it touched. The old one sat among the thongs of the pitied, hearing a cacophony of voices, the shrieking outbursts of the demented, and the grumbling of the discontent.
The priests and their humble but loyal minions prepared the food for the pitied, the demented, and the discontent at their one-day-a-week meal. It was enough to starve off the hunger for the day. The food was good, the portions generous; but far more important, was the act of giving the food. It swelled the hearts of the priests, and the noble’s court, and sadly, it validated their very existence.
The masses formed a line to receive the food. As each item was dished up, and placed on the plate with great delicacy, the noble who served it said “God bless you.”
The old one asked himself, “What can God do?” the nobles control all the aspects of one’s life. This invisible god we pray to promises salvation and peace. Yet all the while, the nobles, the tyrants, the lords, and masters rule us with steel, with lies and untruths, and the promises of rewards that never materialize. In the end, the salvation God offers is peace after death…a destiny toward which, not surprisingly, the tyrant is always more than happy to help you meet God.
Then exactly at one hour passed noon, the priests told the old one and the others nicely but forcefully, to leave his house. So out of shelter and into rain they walked, some one by one, others in groups, they all left the safety and warmth of the priest’s house.
They scrambled and scurried to find somewhere dry. One by one, they disappeared into the mist, only to reappear en masse at another place, still seeking shelter, their ragged clothes, and spirits dampened by the cold rain.
The old one trudged on, dodging raindrops and puddles. In the wet and gloom he thought once more about what had brought him to where he was now. Yet he was thankful for what little he had.
When the old one arrived back at the 2100, he was pulled from the line and taken to the side by a being called Boxcar. Boxcar informed him that he was moving to a semi-permanent dorm called T. Here men waiting for transfers to units with even greater permanency waited. Boxcar assigned him a rack and a locker. The rack was the same as the ones in E, but this one was his well his for a while anyway. He made the bed with a clean sheet, a pillow and case, and a blanket.
His locker was red it was one foot wide by one foot deep and five feet tall. It had a shelf at the top and four hooks to hang his clothes. Sadly, he unpacked his tote bag into the locker, his eyes tearing; the sum total of fifty-eight years of life he could place in this locker with room to spare. “What a sad commentary of my existence,” he thought.
The old one closed the locker door, and in doing so, he opened another door. It was a door, that once opened and entered, only time would tell in what direction he would travel, yet there was one thing he knew, he never wanted to return to the infamous E Dorm.
He sat on his rack, sniffed the air. What was that smell? He sniffed again. His heart sank. That smell was he. The old one rose, went to the locker, removed the soap, the towel, clean underclothes, and headed directly toward the shower room. He took off his boots and entered the shower, adjusted the water temperature until it was as hot as he could stand. Then he washed his clothes, removing them from his body one at a time, when he had washed all his clothes, he scrubbed his skin until it was pink and sore to the touch. Even then, he still felt unclean. This feeling of uncleanness was also a new sensation… one more thing to add to the never-ending list of novelties he was sure he would have to endure.
The old one awoke to a day of blue skies and an abundance of sunshine, and mild, even delightful temperatures it was a beautiful day, and yet he was in a funk. “Funk” being the only word he could think of to describe how he felt.
Now if you were to ask the sorceress about the feeling of funk, she would say, “a simple case of melancholy; let’s talk about it.” If you were to ask the alchemist about the feeling of funk, he would concoct a dose or two of something from dried bat eyes, tail of skink, and toenail of shrew, mixed with the powder made from the nightshade plant and the bark of the sassafras tree. Now if this potion didn’t kill you, you were too sick to worry about the way you felt.
However, there it was the old one was in a funk. He was anxious, wondering if the hazel-eyed sorceress had posted the three letters, he had given her. Had she done it? What delayed them? Had he forgotten to put the mail codes on the letters? On the other hand, was he just feeling impatient? Waiting was a very hard thing for him to do.
He just sat in his funk, letting it manifest itself, allowing it to grow and feed on him and grow unchecked. The old one did nothing to check it and deeper, ever deeper he sank into that black sea of melancholy.
He tried to lose the funk. He tried working on logic puzzles, but to no avail; he couldn’t concentrate even on the easiest of them. He tried to lose himself in a video but the video only depressed him even further. He tried food, but even this; even his most favorite food seemed different, almost tasteless.
He picked up his quill and began to write in his journal. However, even trying to describe his funk was to no avail. Words wouldn’t come, though visions, Technicolor visions flooded his brain. He laid his journal aside, lay down on his bed, closed his eyes, and watched the visions as they played out in his brain. One after another raced past his senses until these too disappeared in into the recesses of his brain. At least one good thing came from this funk the old one slept a deep sleep.
The old one again awoke to a cold spring morning. He rolled over, shook his head, and then dropped back into a sound sleep. He awoke to the sounds of thumping on his rack. He rolled over, opened his eyes, and stared into two black smiling faces.
“Hey old man,” he heard, “The man needs your help in E Dorm.” The old one smiled, rolled over on his haunches, and dropped his feet to the floor. He slipped on his shoes and followed one of the men to E Dorm; he was directed to distribute freshly washed sheets to each bed it took the old one just a few minutes to perform this task.
It was after he had performed this task that the old one’s fate … or was it his luck? That changed. It seemed to him, looking back that this was when a being entered his life—she first appeared to him in T unit.
Her face lit by a warm smile, she said to the old one, “Would you like to talk to a listener.”
“Yes,” the old one responded, “I’d like to,” then he thought to add, “however I write to try and relieve the stress and anxieties and that seems to work pretty well for me.”
“Oh, you’re a writer,” the being said.
The old one pulled a journal from his pocket that he kept with him at all times, he flipped it open and read a passage from a story he had recently written. Amazingly, the being took a genuine interest in the old one as well as what he had written. The being listened as he read from the journal, really listened, which brought joy to the old one’s heart.
The being told him her name… a name he would never forget. He allowed it slowly to revolve and reverberate through his brain. No matter how he pronounced it or thought of it, the name flooded pleasure into the very soul of the old one. The being told him of a listener and a writer, what interested him the most was the writer who visited the 2100 twice a week. In addition, he would meet the writer and maybe the writer could help him with his writing and maybe, just maybe help him get his work published. These words made the old one happy, happier than he had been in a long time.
At last a good day had come, not only had he spoken to his daughter. Finally, he had something to look forward too. He had something to live for, at least another day for, anyway.