Crossed Paths

 

 

Karl W. Bokelmann

 

 

Horace was asleep on the park bench when he awoke to a pawing at his face. Thinking it was a dream, he pushed away the object of his torment and rolled his night-stiffened, arthritic body to the back rest. It was a dream unlike those that tortured him for as long as he could remember; demons feeding on his bowels, stretching entrails over their heads, whipping them about in a frenzy. His skin flayed, sinews laid bare, life's fluids draining away in rancid, congealing rivers. He begged, pleaded for a merciful death. That death would not come. The eyes would be the last to go. Eyes wide open in a silent scream, the blood vessels within about to burst.

No, this wasn't that sort of dream. It was far too compassionate.

A claw hooked into his lower lip. Horace uttered a painful expletive and drew his hand to his face. His fingers gloved in a pair of old worn out jerseys, he combed at his beard that grew in a long tangle down his chest.

"God damn it! Can't a bum get some sleep around here!"

Horace sat up, his bones snapping to life. He opened his eyes to a sunny autumn day, leaves hanging golden from the trees. Some were flitting about in the morning breeze, scratching along the surface of the sidewalk at his feet.

"Son of a bitch!" He balled his hands together and squeezed them between his legs. "I wasn't cold until I woke up. Now who the Hell..!"

Horace looked down. It was a cat; a kitten by the size of it. It looked up at Horace and gave a tiny mew that was carried away in the wind. It sat there like a statue, its tail snaking side to side. Its ribs rippled in the morning sun on its tar black fur. It was thin and stunted, much like Horace himself.

"You! What do you want!"

The black cat mewed and stood up, rubbing itself against Horace's leg and arching its back, lifting itself off its forelegs. Horace pushed it away with his foot.

"Damn cat!"

Unperturbed by Horace's lack of conviviality, the cat pounced on a leaf blowing across the sidewalk. Horace reached behind the bench for his Army surplus knapsack. With a grunt, he lifted what amounted to all his worldly possessions onto the seat next to him, complained of his arthritis, and pulled out a half a pack of saltine crackers, the wrapper twisted on one end and held fast with a well used twist tie. The crinkling caught the cat's attention, halting its round of play, and watched Horace as he slipped out about a half a dozen crackers. He nibbled off a quarter bite from one, then another, savoring each morsel. The cat stretched its head up, sniffing the air.

"This is all I'm having for breakfast and you want some too!"

The cat meowed.

"At least you're honest. Here." Horace tossed the remaining portion of cracker on the sidewalk in front of the cat. It jumped on it, took it in its mouth and inhaled every last crumb. "You don't leave nothin' go to waste, do you." Horace snapped another cracker in two and tossed the pieces down. The cat snatched them up as well.

Horace finished off his own stack of crackers, twisted the package closed, and slipped it into his knapsack. The cat watched his every move. "Breakfast's over."

Horace fumbled for the pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket of his fatigue jacket. He shook the near empty pack into his hand and a half-smoked cigarette fell into his palm along with flakes of tobacco, burned or otherwise. Hanging from his lip, he brought it to fire with a lighter nearly exhausted of its fuel. The cigarette left a fire-barrel taste in his mouth. He settled back to consider the day that began much like any other. Well, almost.

Horace took small, slow drags as he watched the little black cat scamper about, chasing leaves. The cat ran after a leaf that got away from it and buried itself into a pile accumulated along the edge of the sidewalk. It rustled about unseen, a quivering mound of untapped energy. The cat poked its head from the pile, then leapt straight out. It returned and compulsively pawed and dug at the leaves.

"What you got there? A mouse or something? And I just gave you my breakfast." Horace drew back on the cigarette, burning into the filter. He spit out the taste and threw the butt down on the sidewalk.

Horace watched as the cat dug a crater into the pile of leaves, clearing an area down to the greenish brown grass.

"Hang on there, cat. That don't look like no mouse." Horace levered himself off the bench, his knees reminding him of their deteriorating state, and reached down into the crater of leaves. Crumpled and faded among the gold and green lay a bill; weathered, well-used but nonetheless viable. Horace snatched it up as the black cat made a play for it.

"Twenty dollars. I thought you were supposed to be unlucky. Haven't had this much in my hand for months." Horace flattened out the bill, folded it in half and stuffed it in the breast pocket behind the cigarette pack. He fastened his knapsack closed and slung it over his shoulder. The black cat ran close behind as he made his way up the sidewalk and out of the park.

In an inner-city, corner grocery store, Horace laid out his purchases on the checkout counter in front of a tight-lipped Asian woman. They viewed one another with equal disdain and suspicion. She tallied and bagged a box of saltines, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter with "Life is a bitch and then you get married to one" printed on it - the Asian clerk reading it and either not understanding or indifferent, dropped it in the bag - a twelve ounce block of medium cheddar cheese, and a small box of cat treats.

"Will be all?" asked the clerk. Horace spied a shopping cart full of bottles near the checkout and pulled out a liter of cheap Port.

"That'll be all." Horace set the bottle on the counter. He laid out the twenty after it.

The clerk picked it up and viewed it in the light of the storefront window, turned it over several times, and then meeting her approval, she set it on the till as she counted out the change. She handed it to Horace, careful to drop it into his palm without touching him. "Thank you very much, sir," she said with little expression. "You again, come."

"You bet," Horace muttered as he took the bagged goods off the counter and pushed his back into the door.

Outside, sitting on the concrete stoop, the black cat was licking the back of its paw in long strokes. Horace looked down. "I wouldn't hang around too long. These people eat critters a lot less appetizing-looking than you." The cat rubbed against his leg and meowed.

Back through the park, Horace detoured to where Max usually spent the night, one of a set of benches hear the central fountain that was shut down for the season. It looked like a giant tomb marker that flowing waters otherwise gave life to during the warmer months of the year. Several pigeons stood sentry along the edge of the upper reservoir. Max was asleep on his bench, curled up into a fetal position.

Without stopping, Horace walked by and set the bottle of cheap Port in front of the bench. He knew Max would enjoy it and keep him from swapping food stamps for money or begging for another day at least. Horace felt a sort of brotherhood with Max though he didn't dare wake him. He was a talker and Horace didn't feel much like talking. He'd find himself trapped for hours as Max would ramble on about all the ideas on how he was going to make something of himself one day, how he had a brother in auto parts manufacturing, and enlighten Horace with notions that he somehow figured were old and already in practice. Horace still liked him. Max was genuinely friendly and never tried to get anything out of him besides his company. That's all he had to offer, anyway.

Further into the park, Horace noticed the pages of a newspaper blowing across a field and collecting up against a hedge. He stopped to gather them up and stuffed the rumpled sheets under his arm. This was a bonus. Horace would otherwise read the upper half of newspapers displayed in their vending machine windows, never able to finish the story continued on page A2 or whatever.

Horace tossed the knapsack onto a park bench and sat down with his stack of papers. He sorted them out. Some of the pages were missing but there were enough to make him feel that he was more than half informed. He slid the papers under his knapsack and took out the new box of crackers, cheese, and cat treats. The cat was pacing back and forth, rubbing against Horace's shins. He broke open the box of treats and fed them to the cat who would swat at his fingers, its claws catching on his worn gloves. He threw a small handful onto the sidewalk.

"My turn now."

Horace cut open the package of cheese with a stainless steel jack knife he bought at the PX when he was in the Army. It had U.S. stamped on its side. He had a ten inch survival knife at one time but was confiscated by the police in some nameless town some forgotten time ago. It looked too dangerous on a man who hadn't seen a razor in years (he bathed in lakes and streams, seasons permitting), dressed in a fatigue jacket as battle scarred as its owner, and jeans with a triangular swatch of red bandanna sewn into the outside seam halfway up to his knees. He said nothing when they took his knife away, drove him to the outskirts of that town, and told him to move on and not to come back.

He shaved thin slabs from the chunk of cheese and set them on the crackers, stacking them on the bench next to him as the cat stared. Horace shooed it off and threw a few more treats onto the sidewalk.

Horace picked up the newspaper and read through the headlines: City Councilman Affair Scandal, New Stadium Voted Down, Soviet Breakaway Nuclear Threat - China at Alert. He read through everything with equal interest, or disinterest. Reading would while away his day, pulling his thoughts from much darker areas of his mind, lost in the chronicles of other peoples lives, other places safely filtered through newsprint. He would finish each story on every page before going on to the next. Less disappointment if the subsequent page was missing. The stories hardly mattered; just the process of reading.

Horace flipped the front page back and saw that the cat had knocked his stack of crackers and cheese to the ground and was mawing on an orange wad stuck to the roof of its mouth.

"Why you son of a ... whatever the hell you are!"

Horace looked beyond the black cat and saw a pair of worn shoes. Shoes and white socks, bare legs dropping down from a dirty wool herring-bone patterned overcoat. He raised his head.

It was Mary, expressionless, neither happy nor sad, deep lines adding years to her age. Her straw blonde hair flared out from under a stocking cap, blowing across her face in the wind. She brushed it from her eyes that deep inside wanted to say "hello" but her own demons that dwelled within gagged her. She looked away and continued her voyage that began years before, pulling the Radio Flyer heaped with a mound of clothes she never wore, objects that would remind her of times that she'd be better off forgetting. Horace shrugged and returned to his paper as Mary and the Radio Flyer squeaked away over a knoll. The black cat sat at his feet running its tongue over its paw, tail twitching from side to side.

* * *

Night descended on the park along with a fog that recast street lamps into disembodied globules of light, their glow softened into an even wash across the rolling fields. Trees stretched out their dark, crooked tentacles against a pallid gray backdrop. The dankness of the hour coagulated into droplets that floated about, almost frozen.

The Viet Cong guerrilla spun the cylinder and slapped the revolver into Horace's hand. Vietnamese dongs were thrown into a loose pile by other guerrillas chattering in a twisted staccato language that Horace never understood, never could decipher. The guerrilla thrust the barrel of his AK-47 under Horace's arm and forced it up toward Tony, who was standing next to Horace, trembling, sweating. There was an open slash across his forehead. Blood ran down his neck and saturated the front of his fatigue shirt to an ugly brown splash. Horace wasn't in much better shape. The barrel of the Kalashnikov was jabbed into his ribs, hard. He felt one cracking. The guerrilla brought the rifle back up, lifting Horace's arm to where the revolver was pointed at Tony's head. The guerrilla pursed his lips and pointed with dark eyes to Tony. There was little left to Horace's imagination to this silent instruction.

Horace held the gun up to Tony's face, tears streaming from his eyes. Seconds stretched to lifetimes. The guerrilla cracked Horace's kneecap with his rifle butt. Horace was not allowed to bring the gun down. The guerrilla pushed the barrel into Horace's cracked rib. Horace yelled something out loud that made no sense and squeezed the trigger.

The revolver clicked and there was silence.

The Vietnamese resumed their frenzy of dropping wads of dongs onto the pile as the revolver was snatched from Horace by the coarse haired youth, given a spin of the cylinder and thrust into Tony's hand, this time with Horace on the receiving end of this deadly game. Horace squeezed his eyes closed, believing that it would stop the lead projectile from entering his skull.

A click. Then silence.

More money was heaped on the ground and the gun was again in Horace's hand, pointing at Tony's head. Tony looked at Horace, his face streaked with tears and blood. He stopped crying and a calm that bordered on madness shrouded his face. He smiled and began to jerk from restrained laughter. Tony looked at Horace. Come on, Horace. Three on a match. The loser's the lucky one. Horace looked Tony in the eye. Don't laugh you son of a bitch! Tony kept on laughing, pleading to end the insanity that was infestating his mind.

He laughed up to when Horace squeezed the trigger.

A click.

An explosion.

Tony fell back with that smile on his face, his eyes with an expression of peace in them, unangry at Horace, thankful that his nightmare was over. The Vietnamese gathered up their money. The gun was pulled from Horace's hand and before he could react to any of this, before he could grieve, before he could hate, he was rifle-butted unconscious.

Tony came to him in a dream, smiling, joking, drinking from a can of Budweiser. The back of his head was blown out, his hair matted down with blood and brain tissue. What are you going to do back in the World, he asked. I'm gonna take over my dad's garage. Horace didn't answer.

Horace was shaken awake by an American soldier that looked very much like Tony; shaved head, a few days worth of stubble on his face, an expression that added years to a nineteen-year-old countenance. He thought it was Tony at first but then saw the body sprawled on the ground next to him, lifeless eyes staring into his. The camp was deserted of Vietnamese. The only trace of them being there was a small burnt out pile of coals and trampled vegetation. And two dead bodies. One physically dead, the other, well, that's much more complicated. Horace cheated death, the winner, but not feeling the least bit lucky. He wished he was the dead but he knew it could never come at his own hand. He watched men - boys - die beside him, all around him, but he was "lucky". "Lucky Horace" they'd call him. He'd make it through his tour of duty suffering only a case of jungle rot. Not a scratch. But his mind, well, that's much more complicated.

Horace thought the voices were in his head, in his dream, like they've been in his dreams before. The black cat was on his chest, alert, pacing back and forth on top of him, sniffing the night-damp air, ears twitching. It mewled as the approaching voices pierced the fog. The cat dragged its sandpaper tongue across Horace's nose and cheek.

Horace welcomed the interruption to his recurring dream. But lost as he was between the conscious world and that of sleep, he sensed a danger in those voices. He didn't get along with most people but he could tell those who could be friendly, indifferent, hostile, or downright dangerous. He rose from the bench, the cat jumping from his chest, grabbed his knapsack from the ground and slipped behind the bench into the bushes.

The gang of toughs - foul-mouthed and smart-talking - were out looking for a confrontation to while away yet another night of their meaningless existences. Horace was one himself at one time, a drop-out, pissed-off at the world he thought owed him something, a rebel, a loner - still a loner - a malcontent that would punch the lights out of anyone who looked at him the wrong way, until the world started punching back.

One of the youths jumped up on the bench that Horace had just vacated. The cat hissed. Horace held its tiny snout silent. He knew anything was fair game; a cat's a good a victim as anything else. A window to break, a headlight to smash, a cat to kill. And he didn't want it leading them to his whereabouts.

They disappeared into the fog, dark figures in big pants and loose jackets. A bottle smashed and tinkled into the waterless basin of the fountain. Then quiet.

Max! His usual bench. Then he heard them.

Hey, old fuck. We's needs a place to sit! Leave me alone! You heard him. Find somewhere else to flop. Go away! Listen old man. We'll go when we're damn well ready. You son-of-a-bitchin' punks. You hear that? Is that any way to talk about our fuckin' mothers? Let go of me!

A body thudded out onto the sidewalk, grunts and utterances of pain with a kick of a foot into the gut. Screams choked back by the wind driven from the lungs.

The Vietnamese youth had been in a shallow bunker hiding behind several baskets of rice. He was wrenched out from the hole and his hands tied behind his back. Blindfolded, he was unable to see the butt of the M16 smashing into his jaw. He was interrogated in a language he didn't understand, answered in a language alien to his inquisitors. There was nothing that could be extracted from him that would be of any consequence but he was nonetheless hoisted up a tree by his hands, arms separating from their shoulder sockets as he writhed about screaming at his tormentors bent only on revenge for a lost comrade-in-arms, a friend, a fellow soldier whose face was blown off by a grenade booby trap as he opened a door to a hut. He lived for minutes as he choked out indecipherable words from a hole in his head that once was a mouth on what was once a face.

The village was an easy target for their wrath, the entire platoon storming its way through lives indifferent to political winds, concerned only with making it through another day. Yielding to a tornado plowing its way through a town, the fabric of those lives was ripped from their foundations and strewn across the landscape, leveled to the ground in a random frenzy, broken apart and never to be put together in quite the same way. No time to run for cover. Even less time to pray.

The Vietnamese youth hung lifeless from the tree, his body battered, not a bone left in one piece to hold it straight even if there remained a spark of life to command it to. Horace and the rest of the platoon had gotten their revenge. But there was no feeling good about it.

Horace was laying on his side when he awoke among the bushes behind the bench, the black cat curled up on his shoulder. Blue and red lights were casting their pall in the morning mist from the other side of the fountain. Horace grabbed his knapsack and snuck out from behind the bushes, along the hedge, and into a small stand of trees. Looking back, he could see Max being zipped up into a bag, a vision that brought back memories Horace had fought hard to suppress. The cat was still with him, this time appearing to lead him away from the scene. You didn't have to tell Horace twice whether it be from a human or otherwise. He walked out of the park and into the streets of an awakening city. Horace scooped up the little black cat as it uttered a meow and perched it on his shoulder. He would not return to the fountain park.

Horace found himself in another park on the other side of the city. It was in a more affluent neighborhood and Horace found himself at the receiving end of blunt stares by walkers and joggers along wooded trails. There were too many people who took notice of him and he knew he'd have to move on.

But not before the black cat had dug out from the dirt a diamond tennis bracelet. Horace knew it held value for somebody but not for him. If found with it, he would be accused of being a thief. Engraved on the back was "To Lucy with love on our 20th" along with a name he had recognized in his wanderings to be a jewelry store several blocks from the park. He went to that store, the clerk raising his eyes over his glasses with a look of contempt, and laid the bracelet on the glass display case saying that he had found it in the park and would like to see it returned to its owner. The clerk held it up to the light and before he could say a word, Horace was already through the door with what appeared to be a black cat perched on a knapsack.

Two days later, feeling hungry and cold as he sat on a bench along with the cat, Horace was approached by a well-dressed man. He asked Horace if he was the one that brought in the bracelet to the jewelry store. He said he was. The man pulled his wallet from the breast pocket of his coat and fished out several hundred dollar bills, then a couple more as he looked at Horace with an air of pity. Horace didn't like that look, almost preferring the frequent alternative of repulsion. Confronting one another were two worlds that understood very little of the other, nor really possessing the desire to. Horace looked away from the man and his money and then responding to the suggestion about leaving the city for the comfort of warmer climes, and that things didn't look good - whatever that meant, he accepted the hundred-dollar bills. He nodded a silent thank you and stuffed them into his breast pocket. The well-dressed man stood and stared out over the skyline of a city that looked dark and inhospitable. He turned without a word and disappeared down the trail.

Horace could have spent the money for a southbound bus ticket but he didn't like the immediacy to other people. He knew as well he wouldn't be able to bring along the black cat, his newfound friend, something that he could look into the eyes of - human or otherwise - and not turn away. He decided to take his chances and walk the railroad bed to his undetermined destination. It would be slow going but he wasn't in any particular hurry. He never was. He had a companion in that black cat who'd crawl inside his knapsack and stick its head out from under the flap or curl up inside and sleep. It was the only living thing he had allowed to come close to him for... he couldn't remember. His life was like wallpaper, day to day, year to year.

Five or so miles out of city limits, Horace came to a tunnel cut through an outcropping of Niagara dolomite. Standing at the entrance arched with graffiti decorated concrete, he could see the other end framed in the darkness. He hated tunnels, hated confinement in small spaces. The blood pulsed behind his ears. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his knapsack and stepped inside.

Enveloped in black, Horace froze. He could not lift his feet. His eyes adjusted to where he could barely make out the parallel steel rails. He dragged his foot to the next railroad tie, stumbling on it. He had to go forward. There was no turning back. Adjusting his gait to a cumbersome rhythm, he continued on, the backs of his legs stinging with each step. Midway through the tunnel, Horace felt the cat stir inside the knapsack. It slithered out from under the flap and stood on his shoulder. With a howl, it jumped off and disappeared down the dark passageway.

"Where the Hell you goin', cat!" Horace growled, stopping and standing across the ties.

The cat began to mewl and howl with urgency, a painful, ghostly echo inside the tunnel. It became strangled in a smaller space.

"Damn cat."

Horace tripped over the rail as he made his way toward the cat's yowling. It went deeper into that small space. He saw an opening at ground level, the grating that once covered it outlined in the dim light coming in from both ends of the tunnel. The cat was singing a death-song from the depths of the opening.

On his hands and knees, Horace stuck his head into the opening. He'd been here before and fought back the demons that inhabited those dark spaces.

"Cat! Come on, cat!" His voice dropped into the hole and swirled down to the bottom. Horace shut his eyes but it was no darker than what lay before him.

Armed with a flashlight and a Colt 45, Horace made his way through the bunker, his knees bent, back hunched over, the pain of this posture numbed only by pure fear. There was no way out without backing up, nowhere to turn. Dirt spilled onto his head and down his neck in clods. He'd be buried alive, the earth pressing his face to the floor, his arms and legs locked down, unable to dig himself out, the air pressed from his lungs with each breath.

Dark shapes flashed in the beam of the light, or so he thought. He'd hear footsteps, or would it be just dirt falling to the floor. Rats ran across his feet. He was at home with the rats.

A shadow flew in front of him. The 45 retched out a rage of fire. Horace had no grasp of whether he consciously pulled the trigger or not. Flashes like thunder filled the tunnel, a deafening roar that left a ringing in his ears.

Horace trained the flashlight ahead to a junction in the tunnel. The 45 shook in his hand, his arm thrust straight out before him. He rounded the corner, the Colt leading the way. Cordite and damp earth invaded his nostrils and a bitter taste ran across his tongue and lumped in his throat.

The light splashed over a rumpled bulk of dark clothing sprawled on the tunnel floor. Horace knelt down and poked at it with the barrel of his gun. It groaned. And it whimpered. There were two entry wounds in the body. One to the upper back below the shoulder blade, the other into the rib cage on the other side. A dark liquid streamed across the dirt floor, a glistening river pushing the dust aside as it ran. He pulled up on the shoulder. It was a woman; pretty, fair-skinned, a small upturned nose. A woman much like those Horace fell in love with at the brothels of Saigon. Underneath her was a bundle saturated with blood. He pulled at it. It was heavy and alive. A sick feeling twisted in his stomach. Wrapped in a black cloth was an infant, still very much breathing. A bullet, spun through the flesh of the mother, had ripped through the infant's neck, severing the windpipe.

Horace never could throw up. As sick as he had ever gotten, he could never throw up. He wished he could; then he could purge himself of the horror of the moment. The infant gurgled through the open wound, the flesh a mass of coarse ground meat. It made a sickening sucking noise that, for the first time in Horace's life, brought a heavy knot up in his throat. He spewed out a torrent of bile and half-digested C-rations. He dropped the woman's body back down on the infant, both emitting inhuman sounds. Backing up into the junction, he turned and ran up the tunnel, wiping the vomit from his lips with his bare arm. A combination of smells he would never be able to erase from his memory; damp earth, gunpowder, blood, and puke. He was too close to Hell. The earth was swallowing him up. He thought he came down one tunnel but it went on forever. It all looked the same - dirt with roots fingering through it, held up with crude beams that looked to collapse at the slightest touch. His lungs exploded, battling to extract oxygen from depleted air. The floor ran down. He couldn't remember it running down. FUCK! Am I going the right way!?

A light. A light at the end of the tunnel, he thought to himself and he laughed out loud, laughed maniacally. Laughed as if to cheat death and the Devil. He had cheated death. The Devil was another story.

Horace found himself at the junction of several drainage sewers. It was damp and stank of death. He nearly threw up for the second time in his life. He took the lighter from his pocket and struck it to flame. In the fetid water collected on the floor of the junction was a half-rotted animal carcass, its identity lost to decay, the ribcage sheathed with mummified skin and fur. Its teeth bared out from its skull, the eye sockets empty and vacillating to the flickering of the flame. Horace stared into those eyes. Repulsive as it was, it could not parallel the repulsiveness of his past.

He held up the lighter to the wall behind him and saw the black cat perched up on a ledge. "There you are, you little black bastard. Why'd you have to go and drag me down here for!"

The cat hissed and spat, not at Horace but at what came from above. Coursing down the sewer duct from off in the distance, Horace could hear the sirens. They wailed louder and louder as if the sound piled up at the entrance to the tunnel and finally gave way into the dark catacomb. The cat howled an eerie, shrill howl in near register with the sirens wavering in an off tune vibrato.

"What's the matter, cat?"

The sirens stopped dead. All was silent except for the cat's howl. Then there was a bright flash at the entrance of the sewer duct, so bright that it stung Horace's eyes and he had to turn away. The rumble of some ungodly machine was making its way towards him, fast. A roar shot through the railroad tunnel, the wind whistling across the entrance to the duct. Dust and debris was siphoned out along with the air as it was sucked past Horace. He was thrown into the water splashing up from the tumult. He pushed himself into a corner and braced himself.

Suddenly there was silence, just the whisper of wind blowing through the tunnel. Horace slid down to the floor, into the stinking water, holding his hands to the sides of his head. He was afraid to move. Through the ringing in his ears he heard the cat's howling.

Horace didn't know how long he sat there. Looking up the sewer duct he saw dim light. It was still day. He climbed up into the duct, cold, stiff, and smelling rank. His knees screamed at him as he dog-walked toward the gray square. The black cat jumped across his back and ran ahead of him. It stopped and meowed, waiting for Horace to catch up.

"Hang in there, cat, I ain't built for this anymore."

Horace reached the end of the duct, the cat pacing back and forth at the entrance to the railroad tunnel. There was a dark gray pallor to the sky. Trees were stripped bare and listing to one direction, only the heaviest trunks remaining straight. There was no moaning of nearby freeway traffic, no cawing of crows, no whine of jets from the airport a mile away. Just dead wind.

Horace walked out the tunnel whence he came, the cat leaping to climb up on top of the knapsack. It hung on, spread-eagle, by its claws.

It was hardly different from the visions of bombed-out jungle that coalesced in his mind from a time eons ago, from a life he chose to abandon. It was a cleansing, a washing away of the flotsam that he thought for so long he was a part of. He was spared. He knew not why, but he was allowed to go on.

He stared down the tracks that came to a vanishing point into a city now tattered and beaten, dark monoliths thrusting themselves into the gray, vacuous sheet that could have just as well blanketed the entire globe for all he knew. He felt he should be saddened, but he knew too much cruelty to muster up that emotion. Nor anger. They should have known better but they continued on their destructive path that finally came to a head. He felt only satisfaction, in a guilty sort of way, that he managed to distance himself from civilization's ills the best he could.

Horace saw little color to the world under normal circumstances - and this was far from it - since color left his life long ago, or his ability to perceive it. There was scant distinction between the world and that sky, the horizon lost in the mist that concealed the wreckage of Mankind. To Hell with Mankind. There was little of it he found himself able to associate with anyway.

There was movement down the tracks. Horace would have missed it if he had turned a second sooner. He stood there between the rails, the cat perched on top of his knapsack. Squinting his eyes into the mist he could see a human figure approaching, lumbering along the rail bed. It was in no particular hurry. Why bother, now? There very well may have been no place to go. Frozen by curiosity, Horace waited.

It was Mary, pulling her wagon of worldly goods behind her. Horace could see the expression on her face from a city block away. It wasn't much of an expression; the one always drawn across her face. There was some determination this time as well. There had to be to pull that wagon, the wheels squeaking, unoiled, plowing into the gravel.

She wasn't alone. Trailing behind was a dog, a shabby one at that. A perfect match for a woman who cared little about how she or anybody else looked. It was some sort of terrier or at least possessed a small portion of that breed. More likely a mutt, an outcast, like Mary herself.

It was as if it were another day in the park, another casual passing of two lives on an aimless course in an ocean of humanity. That ocean was no longer there. Mary stopped a few paces away and looked at Horace in the way she always had; there was no fear, no benevolence, mostly indifference. The dog sat next to the wagon, its tongue flapping up and down as it panted, its legs too short for whatever journey lay ahead. The black cat stood with its front paws on Horace's shoulder, sniffing the air. It jumped down to the gravel and strode over to the dog. They sniffed one another, the dog leaning away as the cat rubbed up against its side, purring. The cat let out a purt and galloped up the tracks toward the tunnel. It stopped and looked back, waiting. The dog broke into a run. Upon catching up, the two of them dashed back and forth across the gravel bed, plunging into piles of dead leaves, playing hide-n-seek.

Horace looked into Mary's face and saw a barely perceptible softening in her air. Most people wouldn't have noticed, but Horace survived by sensing small changes in facial manifestations. He glanced back at the animals playing with one another, oblivious to the devastation around them. He again looked at Mary and brought the corner of his mouth into not exactly a smile, an unburdening of his stone-faced countenance he carried with him all these years.

He gestured with his head in the direction of the tunnel and the cat and dog running about at its entrance. Mary stood still as Horace took several steps and turned around. She leaned forward, the weight of the wagon countering hers, the wheels sinking into the gravel. Mary stopped and looked down at the mound of clothing and junk piled on it and regarded the baggage held within. She let the handle slip from her hands and it fell into the gravel with a crunch. Giving the wagon a final glance, Mary stepped away from it and walked toward Horace. She walked right by him, her worn shoes grinding into the coarse bed. She stopped and turned to him, a look in her eye as if asking what the hold-up was.

They walked side by side into the darkness of the railroad tunnel, the dog and cat leading the way. The animals would lead Horace and Mary to their destiny.

The animals knew.

 

 

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  Author Bio

  At 46, Karl is a relative newcomer to the game of writing, not really taking it seriously until about four years ago when inspired by the "Gonzo journalism" of Hunter S. Thompson and attempting a little bit of his own gonzo when Bill Clinton came to town.

 He writes with little benefit of formal writing education. Karl maintains he wouldn't know a participle if one was dangling in front of him. He writes what he feels. If it sounds right, he goes with it. Kary says, "Thankfully the comparative-contrastive essay class I attended in college didn't ruin me in the long run." He draws inspiration from many sources; Hemingway, Vonnegut, Chekhov, Bradbury, Ellison, Proulx, as well as innumerable lesser-knowns that may strike him profoundly with merely a single line.

 Karl dabbled with photojournalism, having worked for the college and local paper taking the pictures and writing the articles. He found it too restricting and has since been ensnared by fiction's prose.

 Bokelmann has written several screenplays in addition to numerous short stories. Karl says, "Mr. Eastwood has yet to call me so I must otherwise keep the wolves from the door by picking out nuts and bolts as a mechanical designer where I sneak in a page or two of longhand scribbling."

 He is married to a woman who encourages his habit and they have one daughter. Karl says his wife and daughter are in continual fear that he may mangle and mutilate them as characters in his stories at any time. He is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin's Door peninsula, living one hour away from the recipients of the very first two Superbowl trophies. Go Pack!

 As for "All Sales Final," his wife is an antique dealer and he has accompanied her to many estate sales and auctions. Sometimes he has handled a piece that makes him wonder about the stories held within. (Mrs. Davis had this ability, perhaps much to her misgiving.)

Read another story by Karl
"All Sales Final"

 Previous Published Work:
"Cat in the Road" - Death, fatherhood, and cats juxtapose themselves in my thoughts as I stop to "take care of" a freshly hit cat.
Cutting Edge E-zine (Apparently defunct)

 "The Last German Cheesecake" - The son is too busy for his dying father's instruction and wishes not to make the same mistake with his own daughter.
Peninsula Pulse Magazine 2000 writing Competition - 2nd place.

 "A Boys Game" - Playing war as a kid prepares us for the real thing. Or does it?
Peninsula Pulse Magazine 1999 writing Competition - 1st place.

 

 


 

 

"Crossed Paths" Copyright © 2002 Karl W. Bokelmann. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 01-20-02.

 

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