I thought I'd take a walk today. It's a mistake I sometimes make. My kids were asleep in bed. My wife
lay wide-awake. I paused at the door, listening for sounds imploring me back to my bed. There were none. Wasting no further time over sentiment
or tears, I grabbed my wallet
from the lamp table and left. No coat. That would be yet one more concession in years of foolish compromise. No watch, either.
The night air was cold and unwelcoming. But the streets were empty. All that mattered was an open path that would take me away. I didn't very much care to where it led. Down the street I fell, not taking the time to glance back at all that I had left behind. As I descended from my house upon the hill, I could not help imagining how my father felt when he performed a similar act when I was fifteen. Did he, too, suffer from life under the scrutinizing eye of a shrew? I never pictured my mother that way, but I suppose it must be true. Unless there was some darker reason for his departure. But reasons don't matter. All that remained in my wake was a cloud of dust. Hunching my shoulders into the cold, I banished these thoughts from my head. Not a proper time to ponder my motivations as part of a chain. The decision had been made, and I must be faithful.
Given the late hour, there were very few opportunities for rest. In this town, all the stores close at 9, and it had to have been at least one in the morning. Thus far, my journey had taken me past parking lots and movie theaters all reminiscent of places that had possessed some sort of tender meaning for me in the past. Now the neon signs were broken and flickering. The parking lot that had once been overgrown with weeds had been replaced with an apartment building. I doubted if any of the friends I used to know were awake. Besides, it would be a frightfully awkward sight for them to find me shivering upon their doorstep after months of near total silence. I stopped and scratched my head to think of some alternate course of action. I had little desire to be a burden on anyone. Therefore, it was essential to find some public area where I could spend a few hours, at least until the sun came up. The fact that I did not actually know of any such place did not occur to me immediately. I kept walking, all the while pursued by ghosts and weighty creatures whose touch threatened to plant me in the sidewalk where I stood.
A short while later, I came to a bench in front of a small florist shop. The blazing neon sign, the only living thing around, it seemed, gave off some heat so I sat listening to its hum. Judging by the ominous plot of trees ahead, I was getting near to the edge of town. From stories I'd heard, I knew that it was about a five-mile walk through uninhabited territory to the next. Hard to believe that I had never been past those trees. There was never any reason to go further. Their shadow, bolstered by the inky black, frightened me. With luck, I would not have to venture in that direction. My eyes were growing weary as a result of the distance I had traveled. So weary, in fact, that I thought I saw someone hurrying toward the trees. Is he another like me or is he merely one of the dockworkers walking home after a late shift? I glanced up at a clock mounted on a platform, but it was dead. The only way to find out, I reasoned, was to follow him in the hopes of being led to shelter of some sort. Putting my hands in my pockets, I bent to it again. My mysterious traveler was putting distance on me, and I had to jog to keep up with him. However, I was still far enough away to avoid being discovered, or so I imagined. My fear grew as the trees loomed up ahead. Now that I was so close, though, I would not let anything deter me. Just before we were to enter the forest, the man turned down a street that I had never known existed. Up ahead, a sign glowed brightly. An all night diner. Immediately, my spirits were lifted.
By the time I walked in, my friend was already seated. Thankful to be in a place of warmth once more, I took a booth across from him in order to keep track of my companion. Before long he was chatting up a waitress with Maxwell House eyes, marmalade thighs, and scrambled yellow hair. I kept peering around the bulk of my serving woman to get a better look at her. Apparently the man, his name was Tom, had a reputation as some sort of regular in this establishment. He obviously had no money, but his favorable standing with the waitress seemed to counteract this shortcoming. I ordered myself a coffee and sat, watching the traveler who had all of a sudden become incredibly interesting to me. While waiting for his food, Tom got up and put a quarter in an old jukebox blocking the larger portion of a window. Some old jazz tune came on, which seemed to please Tom, and he danced his way back to his seat. When he moved in such a dramatic fashion, I could hear the coins in his pocket jingle jangle. The old coat he wore puffed out, taking on the extravagance of a tuxedo jacket as he swirled and swirled. Pretty soon, the waitress delivered his food, and sat across from him. They were the most beautiful things in the room. Tom was nodding now, never looking directly into her eyes as he ate. The waitress would reach out every so often to pat his arm with its tapping fingers and bandaged knuckles. I couldn't make out anything they were saying, and part of me felt as though it would be an intrusion to eavesdrop on this particular conversation. Normally I'd listen to anything, but this time was different for some reason. Tom soon finished his meal, and the waitress left to clean up. He watched her go, then went on to produce a small notebook from his jacket pocket. I watched as he scribbled down a few lines, but looked away when he glanced in my direction. As he continued to write, I paid my bill and pretended to be asleep so as not to arouse suspicion.
Several minutes later, Tom got up to leave. Just as he was about to exit our sanctuary the waitress stopped him. A sweaty man in a dirty apron burst from the kitchen, demanding payment for the meal. Tom performed that action that hobo's always do in the movies, pulling out his pockets to show how empty they were. The apron man didn't care, and grabbed Tom by the collar. Before I knew what exactly I was doing, I leapt out of my chair and crossed to the struggle. I grabbed the angry manager, and thrust my wallet into his face. He paused for a moment, glaring at me through a red cheeked, squinting face and stomped off into the kitchen once more. Tom turned to me, and clasped my hand in a consummation of our nightlong friendship. He asked me if I had a place to stay. I explained to him my situation, and he said to follow. Continuing down the road, it wasn't long before we came upon a little abandoned house. We entered through a hole covered by a tarp, and walked into a room where Tom had been living for some time. For a squat, it was a pretty decent place. Walls in good shape, locks on the doors, sporadic electricity. If you avoided the patches of rotten wood and rusty nails it was almost pretty. Tom asked me what I intended to do now. I replied that I didn't know, but would gladly stay and help him in whatever venture he was to undertake next. Tom gave a mumble under his breath, and handed me an empty notebook from a pile of junk on the floor.
"Here," he said. "You're free now. Go fill it up with whatever happens to you, and then send it back home to your wife. As long as you keep movin', you can fill as many as you like." He was right. Not knowing what to say, I put the notebook in my pocket and went to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up. Tom was gone, probably off to the diner for his usual, but I couldn't be sure. Sunlight poured through the tattered walls, so I assumed it must be near midday. I glanced about me to find a coat similar in make to the one that Tom wore. Wrapping it around my shoulders, I slipped the book into my inside pocket and took off my ring. It'd make a nice parting gift. I took one last look around and headed into the trees.