Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Connor Rickett of Cities of Mind.
The sole of my right shoe was threatening to detach from the bulk of it when I got to the rest stop. It was a little old stone building, store in front, house connected to the back.
I walked through the door. If anything, it was hotter in there than the desert air outside. The old man looked up from his Lious L’Amour novel and said, “Son, you’ve got the look of someone who’s been walkin’ a long time.” He stretched the word long out like it’s a rubber band, his voice sounds like it got run over at the corner of Cigarette Road and Whiskey Ave. I nodded. I waited for him to go back to his reading, but he just kept on looking at me. It was a bit uncomfortable, so I decided to have a look around.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes while they adjusted to the dim light. There was no one else in the store, but there were footprints in the faded lime carpet he probably laid with his own hands half a century ago. It was worn to the floorboards down the center of each aisle.
I set my pack down by the door and walked through around each of them, pretending to care about the Route 66 bumper stickers and preserved rattlesnake heads. Doubt he was fooled, but I needed the respite. The old man was still watching me, so I asked, “You got any duct tape for sale?”
“Naw. Got some masking tape.”
“Won’t work, I need it for my shoes. I’ve got a long way to walk.”
He didn’t look down, just gave me a nod, “Yeah, noticed. Want a glass of ice water?”
I nodded and he walked into the back, coming back out with two glasses and a pitcher full of water, condensation already beading on it, and, thankfully, a roll of duct tape. I leaned against the table and poured the glasses while he sat down. After taking a drink, he asked, “Remembered I had the tape in a drawer. Where you going?”
My mouth felt like the cracks on a dry lake bed until the cold water hit it. I sighed, and answered, “Not sure yet.”
“Where you coming from?”
“Not sure yet.”
He nodded, took a long drink, while I start tearing off pieces of duct tape.
“I left home when I was fifteen,” He tells me, “Hit the road in February nineteen thirty-seven after the Ohio river flooded. Was just me and my dad on the farm before that. Flood took the farm, pneumonia took him. He always used to say, before he died, ‘Boy, when you don’t know where to go, follow the sun; least that way you ain’t walkin’ in circles.’ So I took five dollars, a pot, and a good pair of boots–can’t go nowhere without good boots–and I headed West.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Well, that was right during the Depression, back a bit before the Great War. My feet and the rails took me from town to town looking for jobs. Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, California, Utah, Colorado, Nevada. Spent some time in LA when it was all orange groves and empty hills. I worked odd jobs. Then, end of ’41, December 7th rolls around, and I find myself wearing Marine boots in the Pacific killing men I never met.”
I poured another glass of water, “What was that like?”
“Hell. Slogged my way through coral sand and mud soaked red with blood, over the bodies of friends and enemies, spilled guts and bits of brains. Never could get the stains out of my boots. Used my shoe strings to tie a tourniquet when my buddy got shot in the leg on Iwo Jima. He died anyway.”
I’ve cited the crumbling of my body as the main reason I don’t want to get old; truth is, I’m terrified of the sorrow I see in old eyes from time to time. You can see the weight of pain and regret tugging their souls like a tow-rope to Hell. Still wrapped in the optimism of youth, I find myself wondering, how can one lifetime weigh so heavy on a human heart?
“Sorry.” As if my sympathy is supposed to mean something, “How’d you end up here?”
“That buddy who died, well, I had something from his girl and he wanted her to get it back. So when the fightin’ was done, I came back to the States, and I walked to the address. Could have mailed it, I suppose, but it didn’t seem right. Plus, I didn’t really plan to ever stop walking, you know?” He looked at me and nodded, “Yeah, you know.”
He took a long drink, “Walked through the desert heat, out onto the reservation Phillip was born on. Delivered it to the girl, put it right in her hand, and held her while she cried, told her how he died. Not the truth of it, but the glory and courage. Bought a new pair of boots, took off the boots the Marines gave me, never wore them again. Bought some land fronting Route 66, and built this place on it.”
“So you married the girl?”
He laughed. “She didn’t want anything to do with an damned Anglo.”
“So you didn’t marry her?”
“Damn straight I married her. Just not right away. I spent two whole years convincing her I was alright, then another year convincing her I was alright enough to marry. See, my buddy had told her dad about me. Don’t know what he said, but the man liked me well enough. Told me I could come eat with them any time. Walked ten miles from here to her house every Sunday evening for two years to the day. In the end, though, she came to me. Em always had things own her own terms.” The sadness in his eyes, well, it would have broken a different man’s heart. He spent a long moment lost in some memory I wasn’t privy to, then smiled.
“See, I gave up. Two years running she’d said no, and I was throwing in the towel. Said goodbye to her pa, couldn’t bear to say it to her. Sunday evening rolled around and instead of walking to her place, I started packing my things, I had my boots on and I was heading for the door when Emily comes running in yelling. She figured something bad had happened since I hadn’t shown up, and she’d skipped dinner to come rescue me or something.”
He laughed hard, then coughed for almost a full minute, before continuing, “Yelled herself blue, cussed me up one side and down the other, told me if I ever left she’d drag me back kicking and screaming. Then, well, I guess she didn’t see much point in pretending she didn’t care, so she said she’d marry me if I could treat her right for the next year. Traded in my boots again; this time for some comfortable shoes. Never left again, except to take the kids to Disneyland in ’56 and ’61. And I took her to see a Broadway show on our fiftieth anniversary.”
“Sounds like an amazing lady.”
His eyes were wells of sorrow, and his voice echoed with it, “She was. I ran this place with her, raised my kids with her, and lived half a goddamned century as the happiest man alive. But there’s a moral to all this, son.”
“That sooner or later I’ll find where I’m going?”
He laughed and walked into the back. I finished the water and saddled my pack. He came back out wearing a pair of thick leather boots, worn but solid, and carrying a USMC canteen and a letter, the latter of which he placed on the counter.
“It’s for my kids. My son stops by every Sunday. I think I’m gonna take a walk, which way you heading?”
“Towards the sunrise, I suppose. Can’t go back.”
The man shook his head, “Never can.”
I let the old man set the pace. It was slower than I usually walked, but fast for a man who’d seen most of a century pass. In his youth I doubt I could have matched his stride. We didn’t talk much, just walked through the heat until the sun set and then we lay out in our sleeping bags.
Before I fell asleep he said, “What’s your name, boy?”
He didn’t say anything more, so I drifted off to sleep. In the morning, when I shook my boots out a folded scrap of paper fell onto the ground. I opened it and read:
There’s no end to the Road, only to your own Journey. I don’t know if you’ll get where you’re going, but I know you’ll need a decent pair of boots to get there. Just don’t give up until you do. If Em kept her promise, I won’t be needing mine, so they’re yours. Take the locket, too, Em want our granddaughter to have it. Reckon she’s in North Carolina these days with her pa. Haven’t seen her since her mother died a couple years back. Figure you don’t know where you’re going so that’s as good as anywhere.
Good luck kid,
PS Don’t worry about the body, someone will find it soon enough, and I ain’t using it anymore. And the girl’s name is Julianne Redcrow. Shouldn’t be too hard to find.
When I checked him, he was dead. I guess he passed sometime in the night. His eyes were open, but empty, even of sorrow. A smile crooked his lips, and in his hand there was a locket. He had died with it open, so I closed it, to protect the faded black and white photo inside. It was of a beautiful woman hand-in-hand with a man smiling jovially. The caption was barely legible, “Phillip and Emily, June 1941.”
I suppose it would have broken the heart of a different man. I tried on the boots. I wasn’t even surprised when they fit. I wrote, “Thanks Hank.” On the paper, and placed it in my old shoes beside him.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I started walking; there is no end to the Road, and my Journey was only starting. North Carolina? Good as anywhere else. In that moment it was all daunting, like staring up a mountain, and I wondered if just a little the loneliness and sorrow I’d seen in Hank’s eyes might be showing in my own. Still, I decided as I wiggled my toes, the boots would help.
Want more Stone River Walker? Then check out the index page, or click for the next story [UPDATE: Index and story no longer available.]
Connor Rickett is an aspiring writer and avid traveler, who recently realized his Masters in Chemistry program was really crushing his ability to write or travel (and his soul). So he made the best stupid decision of his life and hit the road. He’s finishing up his fourth month on the road in his little green Subaru (currently parked in Ottawa). In his blog, Cities of The Mind, you can read all about his travels, as well as a growing collection of short stories, and a larger collection of random thoughts and observations.
To follow the Courage 2 Create and find out what happens to Ollin and his novel, you can subscribe by inserting your e-mail into the subscription box in the top right corner of the sidebar! Subscription is completely free! Thank you for subscribing!