Across the River

It has been one of those warmish days between winter and spring, but now the sun has set and the dusk is deepening. My bones are weary, and my eyes feel out of round in their sockets as I drive home from the office. I am a casualty of the business world, that whirlwind of meaningless activity leading toward a grand total of zero on the famous bottom line. I now pull over and stop my car alongside the road. I have always wanted to do this, and now I will. No, I won't go back to my prefabricated, prethought, predigested, prerotted life in that meaningless suburb. I will just walk. I will beg. I will have nothing and want nothing. Non-attachment is the time-honored way to happiness, as proven time and again in the East.

I leave the keys in what was my car. Anyone who wants this thing can take it. I won't be needing a car now. I walk ahead to the next cross street and turn left, not knowing or really caring what street it is. Ahead of me on the sidewalk a boy about twelve years of age is walking his little black-and-white spotted dog. The dog crouches in some tall grass by a utility pole and does his duty. The boy praises him with "Good boy, Jock. Good boy." I continue to follow them, but they pay no attention to me. Soon they turn into the sidewalk in front of a small yellow house and go in. The fading daylight is giving way to the artificial light of the buzzing streetlights.

Where will I stay tonight? I don't know. There are many houses along here, but I don't want to ask anyone to put me up for the night. Shall I try to walk to a motel? I have about $150 in my pocket. But no. Why would I want to stay in a motel and pay money like a businessman? I will just stay in my body tonight, wherever my body happens to be. If it's on a park bench, so be it. If it's in a mansion, so be it. In a gutter? Fine.

I walk along for a few blocks and turn left again. Where will I go? I have now given away everything except my clothes and my wallet. Shall I walk north up to the street where the bridge is, cross the river, then walk west? Or shall I walk south out into the country? I could even walk east into the "changing" neighborhood. It doesn't matter. Why do I even need to walk? Will I be picked up as a vagrant? No, not with this suit on, and a trench coat. Am I crazy? Should I be locked up? I don't feel crazy. I just gave up everything, that's all. No big deal.

Yes, I guess I'll go north up the street, turn west, and cross the bridge. I don't know what's beyond the bridge very far, but it doesn't really matter, does it? Something is always everywhere.

I start walking north just like I know what I'm doing. As I reach the bridge street, a policeman drives by in his squad car. I smile and tell myself what a bad boy I am, leaving everything sensible behind and not playing the middle-class game. I should probably turn myself in, but I don't think I will. No, I need to see how this comes out.

I turn west and soon reach the bridge, smiling at how ridiculously symbolic it to cross a bridge on my way to the unknown. I should write a novel about or at least a short story. Maybe I won't live long enough to fill up a novel. Over the railing the dark, peaceful river is visible in the fading dusk. Two ducks swim effortlessly and smoothly out from under the bridge, each leaving a little wake. One of them sees me and quacks. Then the other one quacks. Just one quack apiece -- no big deal for them. I lean against the railing for a long while, lost in thoughts as I stare down at the deep dark, moving waters. With a little inner ceremony, I take off my necktie, stuff it in my pocket, and continue west across the bridge.

Now I'm on the other side of the river, but strangely it seems as though I'm heading east. I haven't turned around, but as I walk I could swear that the sky ahead of me is beginning to lighten as if the sun were rising instead of setting. There is a fragrance in the air, too, that I haven't detected in a long time. The smell of lilacs. It isn't time for lilacs yet, but there is that unmistakable fragrance. Yes, the sun is rising in the west. I look around and see a robin pulling at a worm in the grass along the sidewalk twenty feet away. The robin notices that I am too close, and gives me a staccato scolding as it flutters up into a nearby maple tree.


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There is a little park not far ahead, a park I have never noticed before. Not surprising, as I don't recall ever having walked in this neighborhood. On a bench by the sidewalk sits an old man with short white hair, staring at the approaching sunrise in the west.

"Hello there" I offer. "Why is the sun rising in the west?"

"That's where it always rises," he replies quietly. "That's where it always rises."

"Mind if I sit down here and try to figure this out?"

"Have a seat."

"Do you live around here?" I ask him.

"I'm right here. I live right here."

"On this park bench?"

"For now, yes."

"Do you have a house or an apartment?"

"No, I don't need one."

"I see." I watch a small woodpecker walk straight up the side of a large oak tree about half way across the park. He switches on his head like a jackhammer and attacks a rotten branch. The sunshine is now catching the top leaves of his old tree.

"Where do you eat?" I ask after a long silence.

"Right here." He points to his mouth.

"That's good," I chuckle. "That's where I eat too. No sweat, huh? Life pretty much takes care of itself, does it?"

"Pretty much."

"Do you have a family?" I ask after a short silence.

"Nope", he replies quickly but without emotion.

"A job?"

"Yes, I do have a job. I meet the people who come across that bridge, and I answer their questions. It's usually not too hard. They ask pretty easy questions."

"Are you a philosopher?"

"Not so's you'd notice. I just sit here and talk to the people. It's not too hard."

"Do you think it's necessary to fit into the city rat race? Go to work, come home, spend money, get tired, go to bed, every day and every day?"

"Well, you get your weekends off", he replies with a wry grin.

"You know what I mean. What is the point of all of this gaining and losing, loving and hating, waking and sleeping?"

"I don't know." He rubs his white-stubbled chin. "What do you think?"

"I don't think there's any point to it. That's why I've decided to just wander and beg for the rest of my life."

The old man smiles a little and looks me squarely in both eyes. I can see infinity in his deep blue eyes. His glance is amazingly deep, yet warm and harmless.

"You're going to beg? What if no one gives you anything?" he asks, those blue eyes twinkling now.

"Then I'll die."

"And what will that accomplish?"

"What will driving a late-model car and living in a suburban home with TV-watching kids and a security-loving wife accomplish? Nothing. There's not a thing to lose. I need freedom."

"Maybe so", he mumbles quietly. "Maybe so."

He rises quickly from the park bench, nimble for his apparently advanced years, and pulls me to my feet. "You can't get along begging without some training. High thoughts won't fill your stomach. Why don't you come along with me for awhile? I'll show you how I do it."

"Okay."

It must be an odd sight, I think to myself as the two of us walk along the sidewalk together, westward into the rising sun. Robins are hopping unpredictably in the grass, cocking their heads and stabbing the ground for their worms. A chattering cloud of sparrows flutters over us, heading toward the branches of a budding magnolia tree. They all perch in it and nearly fill it up, jumping excitedly from branch to branch.

"My name is Fred", I offer. "What's your name?"

Continued on the next page.


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About The Author

Alan Harris has written poetry, aphorisms, and essays on a variety of subjects. He has published several volumes of poetry, such as Poems That Search and Poems That Question; Sparks from the Flame; a book of aphorisms entitled Spared for Seed; as well as web-based poetry books (www.alharris.com/poems). This article was first published in Circle of Love, Yorkville, IL. Alan's paid careers (of various lengths) have included farming, music education, English education, piano tuning, journalism, computer programming, systems analysis, and Web development. Since retirement as a corporate Web developer in Chicago, he is dividing his time between creative writing and designing non-commercial Web sites. The author's website is http://www.alharris.com and he can be contacted by email at [email protected]


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